Notes: So, due to a variety of different things, I've been having a little trouble performing lately. Just, you know. I've been under a lot of pressure, I'm stressed out, my mind's on other things. It happens to every writer sometimes. It's perfectly normal. Doesn't mean anything at all.

Anyway, as a means of self-treatment for this unfortunate condition, I played around a little with something new and frivolous. A little Vamp!Xander, Spike & Xander, standalone, no relationship to anything else in canon or fanon or my own little carnival world of prevert delights. Just something to play with the boys and make them start talking again. This will not go anywhere from here.

And because I was rereading anniesj's Spander stories on All About Spike again tonight, loving each of them anew, I am stealing her random-song-title idea and for no reason at all, calling this little fillip...





Red Right Hand


by
Witling



Part One

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but the gist is that I'm now a soulless blood-sucking creature of the night."

"Right."

"I'm a vampire."

"If you'd rather."

"I don't feel like a vampire."

"Do this." Spike turned to look at him head on, and went to game face. Xander studied him for a few seconds, struggled to prop himself up against the passenger door, andÖthought snarly.

"Did it work?"

Spike was watching the road again; he sent a quick glance over, and shook his head. Xander frowned, tested one finger against his canine, and tried again. "Anything?"

Spike reached over, grabbed Xander's throat, and cracked his head against the window. Once, twice. Hard. Then he looked over. "Yeah, that's it."

Xander took one hand off Spike's forearm and patted his own face. Bumpy and cold, a whole new terrain. Holy shit.

"Holy shit," he croaked.

"Yeah," Spike said. "Want to give me my arm back?"






"So what now?"

The wind swept a cloud of dust and road trash through the oasis, and Spike squinted at the buttons on the pump. The fluorescents in the canopy, fifteen feet above them, buzzed like insects and smelled weird. The whole gas station stank. He used to like the smell of gas.

"Now," Spike said, stabbing at the keypad and scowling, "we find somewhere to spend the day."

"Using someone's stolen credit card. Good idea. They'll never track us that way."

"How the bloody hell is anyone supposed to read these things? Fucking tiny little numbers."

"Give it to me, dickhead." He grabbed the card out of Spike's hand, swiped it, and punched okay. The DeSoto started siphoning. "Out of all the vampires I have ever met and dusted, I get mentored by the one who can't pump gas."

"I'm the one you lot never did for, remember."

"Not yet. When Buffy finds out about my new iron deficiency, we're both so staked."

"Right, well, that's why we're driving east, wanker. Don't top it up, the gauge's gone."

"I'm shocked."

"You're mouthy for someone who's just remembered how to walk upright." Spike pulled a few bills out of his pocket, riffled through them, and turned toward the convenience store. "I'm getting cigarettes. You want anything?"

"No." He let his head fall down and rest on the roof of the car. It felt good and cool against his skin. "The lifeblood of the till jockey, maybe."

"Check." Spike wandered off, and Xander had a brief moment of wondering whether he'd really - nah. Nah. He wouldn't. Would he? He propped his chin on the roof and watched Spike walk. The duster whipped in the wind, and his hair gleamed white.

"Kidding!" he yelled, just as Spike opened the door. Even from here, he could hear the electronic people-sensor go off. Spike gave him the finger and went in.






"You're going to have to eat at some point," Spike said reasonably, lighting his millionth cigarette. "If you go comatose, I'm leaving you behind."

"I'm not - " Xander couldn't think of a good way to end that sentence, because Spike was right, he was going to have to eat something soon. He'd been awake - no, alive, no, undead - for almost a full night, and he hadn't fed yet. It sort of surprised him that he wasn't more grr-argh, but Spike had brushed that off. "That's Hammer film stuff," he'd said shortly. "You wake up every morning and savage a plate of eggs?"

"Actually, since you mention it - "

"You're hungry, that's all. And you'll get hungrier, and sooner or later you're going to have to eat."

So, yeah. That was it. He was going to have to savage someone sooner or later, and while he didn't think he felt quite the way he should about that, quite the way he once would have felt, he didn't really want to think about it. If he didn't think about it, maybe he wouldn't have to deal with it. Maybe someone really bad would just fall on his fangs. Like a serial killer. Or the president.

He went for the bag between them, and found Spike's hand already in it. "Hey," he said, batting it out. "My emergency rations, asshole. You had the clerk."

"How'd you - ?" Spike gave him a startled sideways look, then cupped his hand over his mouth and sniffed his breath. "Keep forgetting you're in the brotherhood now."

"'The brotherhood'?" Xander groaned and snarfled a handful of barbeque corn nuts. "Vampirism is so gay."

"I was joking, you idiot. And when did you smell that on me?"

"When you came back to the car with O negative all over your face. I'm serious, back off the snacks."

"I did not have - "

"Spike, I'm in the brotherhood now, remember? I can smell this stuff."

Spike stared straight ahead, a slightly concerned expression on his face.

"I can't believe you're having sex with Angel," Xander said after a minute or two, twisting the rear view mirror around to examine his lack of reflection.

"I am not - "

"Road, Spike. Remember the road."

"God, I hate you."

"Good to know some things don't change."






"Pair-a-dice," Xander said, dropping the depleted bag of gas station snacks on the chair by the door and shrugging out of his coat. "Pair-a-dice. Get it? The Pair-a-dice Motel."

"I get it."

"It's clever, huh?"

"It's a fucking tip." He stomped into the bathroom, flicked the light on, looked around, and came back out in a hurry, closing the door behind him. "We could have used that card at least till tomorrow."

"Spike, which one of us has a history of successfully-laid and -executed plans?"

"Neither."

"Right. And which one of us has a history of bad credit, materially ambitious girlfriends, and endless, depleting financial entanglements?"

Spike thought for a minute. "That would be you."

"Right. From now on, I'm in charge of how long we use the stolen credit cards. You can be in charge of, I don't know, wardrobe and ambience."

"Not sure I can handle all that," Spike said, eyeing Xander's sweatshirt.

"Don't worry, I'm sure you'll have me in the camel-toe black Levis in no time." He flopped back onto the nearest bed, wincing when it slumped under him. "God, what a dump."

"Pair-a-dice," Spike said helpfully. "See, it's like 'paradise,' only it's spelled - "

"Shut up. Is there any food left? I'm so fucking hungry - " He trailed off, one hand on his belly, the other over his eyes. Not a good train of thought. Spike said nothing; he was still wandering around the room, poking things and giving little snorts of disgust. "So, what happens next?"

"Next?" Xander opened his eyes and rolled his head back to look at Spike, who was trying to pry the remote off the table it was bolted to. "Next we have lashings of hot vampire sex."

Xander lay still, his eyebrows raised, struggling to focus properly through his hunger headache.

"Or we go find you something to eat," Spike said, frowning down at the buttons on the remote. Xander rolled to his feet and pulled his coat off the chair.

"You win, Monty. Let's go figure out how this is going to work."






He hadn't ever thought it would be like this; hot and messy and salty and sweet. Well, what else would you expect? It was a body, after all. It was blood. You had to expect this stuff. But he hadn't expected it to be so good. To make him feel like the top of his head had just blown right off, stairway to heaven right up through his spine, and all the little angels singing. God, maybe vampires weren't evil after all. Maybe it was all just a big misunderstanding and once you know how fucking good this was, you could get why they were always after it. It was like sex, that way. How could you blame someone for wanting something that felt like this?

He was still kneeling on the concrete, down behind the garbage cans. He still had the cooling body cradled in his arms, the wound pressed to his lips. He was rocking slightly on his heels. He knew he was smiling. He didn't ever want to let go.

"You going to eat that?" Spike asked, leaning back and glancing down at him with a smile somewhere between amused and disdainful. Xander couldn't muster any snark; he felt high and drunk and giddy and calm, and for the first time in what felt like weeks, he wasn't hungry. He just smiled, knowing he had blood all over his chin.

Spike studied his face carefully, shook his head as if he'd just confirmed something for himself, then smiled back. A proper smile this time, relaxed and friendly.

"Come on," he said, putting a hand down to help Xander up. "We can't stay here."

Reluctantly, Xander let the body go and stood up. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, then sucked some of the blood off. Spike gave him a look of parental frustration, and wiped his hand across Xander's mouth, flicking blood to the ground.

"You ready?" he asked. Xander nodded, his head still singing. Spike took a final drag off his cigarette and flicked it down next to the Rottweiler's corpse. "Man bites dog," he said, flashing Xander a quick grin. "That's one for the papers."

They took off at a run down the alley, and Xander felt like every step he took was ten feet long.






Back in the motel room, he washed his face until the water wasn't pink anymore, then got the hell out of the bathroom without looking closely at the toilet or shower. His whole body was buzzing, electric, little crackles leaping invisibly off his fingertips. He wanted to bounce in place, hang off the doorframes, trash the joint.

Spike lay on the bed closest to the television, studying the jumping picture with a frown.

"What next?" Xander did a circuit of the room, opened the drawer to the bedside table, looked at the Bible inside, and shut it again. Spike pressed a button on the remote and the picture skipped to something long and green and flickering.

"Next we find whoever did the satellite in this place, and gut him."

"Cool. And then we're going to LA?"

"LA?" Spike squinted at him as if he'd said Puka Puka. "What the hell's in LA?"

"Well, you and Angel - "

"Me and Angel nothing. We stop in LA, the poof's going to do his level best to stake the pair of us, same as Buffy would. Evil, remember? Soulless?"

"But you and Angel - "

"Are not sweethearts, you idiot. "

"So the sex is just - "

"For practice, yeah." Spike went back to the television, a little grumpily. Xander wandered over to the window and started singeing his fingers through the blinds.

"Stop that."

"If we're not going to LA, where are we going?"

"I was thinking Milwaukee. Or Guelph."

"I'd like to go to New York." He singed a black spot on his thumb, then watched it heal. "I've never been to New York. Actually, I've never been out of California."

"If you don't stop doing that right now, I'm going to come over there and light your head on fire."

"How come you never told me it was like that?"

"Because you were busy having a soul and not being a vampire. Now, I'm trying to watch a spot of shitty American telly before I fall asleep for the day, would you mind very much shutting up?"

Xander turned away from the window and wandered back over to the bedside table. He played with the molding on the edge until it snapped off in his hand. "Oops." Spike glanced over, and he quickly dropped the broken chunk down the side of the bed and concentrated on the looping television picture.

For the first time in his life, television held no appeal. The bed smelled like cigarettes and other people's hair and sex. He fingered the cover and remembered sprinting through the alleys behind the little houses where he'd taken the dog. If a dog tasted like that, felt like that - what did a person feel like? His mouth felt dry all of a sudden, and a strange, frightened shudder went through him.

"Spike?" He was pissing Spike off, he knew that. But he couldn't sit still like this, he couldn't be quiet. It was too much to process in silence. "Seriously, what happens next?"

"Next I fuck you into the mattress to make you shut up," Spike muttered.

"Fantastic." He rolled onto his side and studied Spike's profile.

"I'm not serious," Spike said after a minute.

"Okay."

There was silence for a minute or two.

"It'll get better," Spike said at last, still staring at the television screen. "You'll get used to it, you'll be fine."

"I know." He bunched his hands into fists, studied the veins in the backs of them, then went to game face, experimentally. Not the same thing, really. "Thanks for carrying me, Spike."

"You owe me."

"I know. I'll pay you back." He hesitated, stroked the bony ridge of his own forehead, and said shyly, "I'll make you proud."

Spike snorted. Then, after a minute or two, he looked over at Xander and smiled.





Part Two



"Bikers," Xander said idly, watching the bar pass by in a streak of green neon. Then it hit him. "Bikers, Spike."

Spike gave him a sour look. "Bloody disgusting."

"Oh, come on. Bikers! I've always wanted to eat a biker!" Spike just looked at him. "Well, okay, not always in the sense of forever, but now that it occurs to me--"

"They smell foul and they don't shave. Trust me, you don't want biker for lunch."

"Spike, when have I ever asked you for anything?"

Pointed silence.

"Jesus, Spike. You're turning into Giles, you know that?"

"Oh, right, I won't turn the car around and drive back to the biker bar so you can get shot in the face trying to suck forty-proof rhesus negative out of the Wild Bunch, which makes me Rupert."

"Can I have a cigarette?"

"No."

"That's exactly what Giles would have said."

Spike's fingers tightened on the steering wheel. Xander smiled and looked out his window. "Diner!"

"No."

"Pie!"

"No."

"Coffee! God, I could use a cup of coffee."

"Get--give those back." Spike grabbed the cigarette packet out of Xander's fingers and jammed it into his pocket. "Jesus Christ, if I have to pull this car over I'm going to stake you, I swear to God."

Xander sank back into the seat and trapped his hands between his knees. A sign went by on his side, upping the speed limit to 55 again. The DeSoto leapt forward; wherever they were going, Spike couldn't wait to get there. The car smelled like cigarettes and corn nuts and the clothes Xander had been wearing last night when he'd eaten his first person, a middle-aged man. Wrong night to walk the Samoyed down that particular lane, mister. Samoyed Man been hot and salty and beautiful, better than sex, and afterward Xander had had the strange compulsion to thank the body. Well, and also to fall down on top of it and roll.

He had the feeling he should be more bothered by... Well. Everything. But he wasn't.

"Stop that." Spike's tone was tight as Jackson pants, and he was rooting for another cigarette. Xander realized he was tapping his hands on the dash, and quickly shoved them back between his knees.

"Sorry." He wanted to roll his window down, stick his head out, feel the freezing wind on his face. He wanted to pop the door and see how much damage he'd take if he hit the ground rolling. He couldn't die. That was just starting to sink in, and it was making him crazy. Maybe because he'd spent his whole life so far taxidancing with death, and now suddenly he was the one with the mittful of dimes. An idea occurred to him, and he sat bolt upright. "God, you know what I want to do?"

Spike pressed finger and thumb to the bridge of his nose and said nothing.

"I want to ride on the roof. Can I--"

"No."

"Look, you don't even have to stop the car, I'll just open the window--" He started unrolling it, and Spike leaned over and slapped his hand away. There were a few seconds of mutal hand-smacking, until Spike upped the ante by grabbing him around the throat and slamming his head into the dash.

When the stars stopped whistling through his ears, he noticed that the window was closed again, and Spike had another cigarette on the go.

"Ow." He sat up slowly and felt his face. For a second he thought he was ruined--he felt all fucked up and broken--and then he realized he was just in game face. "Shid, Spike--" Back in human face, his nose was hard and hot and bloody. "I think you broke by node."

Spike's jaw was ticking. He gave Xander a quick sideways glance, then yanked his eyes back to the road. "You're fine."

Xander dabbed two fingers in the blood on his lip, tried to snort some of it back up, and almost choked. It tasted good, which was something. But still. It really fucking hurt. He sank back into the corner by the door, patting his face and staring at the mess on his fingers. He was shaking a little. Jesus, some vampire he was.

Spike kept sending him quick little looks, watching him regroup. "Your own fault," he said finally. Xander looked up in surprise.

"What--oh, yeah. I know."

"You've been pissing me off all night, you're like a fucking two year-old."

"I know, Spike. I'm a pain in the ass right now, I know."

"You're always a pain in the arse." That sounded sort of automatic, though, and next thing Xander knew, Spike was digging in his pocket and shoving the crumpled packet of Marlboros into his face. He hesitated. "Go on, wanker."

"Thanks." He took a cigarette and lit it off the dashboard coil. His face was already subsiding from pain into heat; it was almost nice. Then it was nice. Warm and nice. He dragged on the cigarette, coughed, and rubbed a finger over the bridge of his nose where it was still tender. That hurt. And he liked it. "Spike?"

Wary pause. "What?"

"I think I'm a masochist now."

"Oh, Jesus."





Part Three

Say what you would about being drained, dead, and revived as a soulless creature of the night - it was a better deal than lugging I-beams and living in fear of the bank for thirty-five years solid. And really, it wasn't like the Scooby gang needed him for anything. Anya'd find somebody fast; she looked great in black. Buffy'd blame herself, but that wasn't new. Giles would repress. And Willow... Well, thinking about Willow still sometimes gave him a little pang. He wished he'd known it was coming, so he could have said goodbye. Told her to sell his Captain America collection on eBay, because seriously, it was worth cash by now. Told her he was adjusting fine, and now that he thought about it, she'd look fucking great in black leather, maybe they could turn the car around and just -

"You coming?" Spike was back at the edge of the roof, staring down at him. And oh yeah, he was supposed to be thinking about how the hell to get up there. Adjusting fine. Right.

"Yeah, I'm just - " He should have paid attention to how Spike did it. Except it had happened kind of fast, and he hadn't really thought they were going to go up, he'd been thinking more around, which was a habit he was going to have to get over, apparently. But really, how hard could it be? "Uh, yeah. Be right there."

There was an iron fence next to the building, about six feet tall - he could use that. Stand on it, maybe, and, uh - he'd figure that part out once he was up there. He grabbed two of the iron bars and stood there a second, wondering where his feet went.

"What are you - " Spike sounded exasperated, which was pretty much the status quo these days. "Look, it's simple, just get on the fence and hop up."

"Yeah, thanks." Xander studied the top of the fence, which was even with his eyes. There was nowhere for his feet. "Listen, how do I get on, exactly?"

"Jump, you idiot."

"Right." He tested the bars in his hand, thought he felt a little give, and almost backed off. But Spike was standing right there, and he'd done it like it was falling off a log, and okay, what if he just -

He lunged and leapt without much clue where he was going to end up, and somehow, against all laws of physics, he was on top of the fence. For a brief, startled second. Then he was heading right over it, facefirst toward the cement on the other side, still clutching the bars in both hands. Something hardened from his shoulders through his fingers, and he found himself hanging upside down, gasping, the top of the fence digging into his gut.

After a few seconds, he realized that sound somewhere above and behind him was Spike. Laughing.

"Very. Fucking." He shifted his grip and started to haul himself back up. "Funny." God, he'd been inches from racking himself. He paused to assess the goods, sighed with relief to find everything still in place, and stood up slowly on top of the fence. It was easy, now that he was up here. "Asshole."

"Come on, Balanchine. Unless you're punctured somewhere."

"Yeah, come on down here and I'll show you punctured." The roof was ten feet above the top of the fence, and there were no handholds. He studied it, feeling the back of his neck start to crawl. "I can jump this?"

"Like I said, just hop up. Pillock."

"Someday," Xander said, stepping back and scratching the back of his neck. "I'm going to look that up. And you're going to be sorry." Okay, so far the best strategy had been not to think too much. So -

He jumped, expecting to hit the wall and slide straight back down with a squeegee noise. Instead he was over the roof, past Spike, skidding to his hands and knees on the tarred gravel. Rocks in his kneecaps, skin off his palms. It hurt, but not so much that he had to pay attention to it. Mainly he felt...high.

"Holy fuck." He stood up shakily, staring down at his shoes and then turning to look back. He was ten feet from the edge of the roof, easy. Spike was walking toward him with his hands in his pockets and an amused expression on his face.

"Who's a clever boy?" he asked, smirking.

"Holy fuck," Xander said again. He couldn't help it; he had to walk back and take a look over the edge of the roof. It was a long way down. As soon as he noticed that, his neck was itching again, because how the hell did he get down, exactly? "Spike?"

"Yeah?" He was lighting a cigarette, walking away to the far edge of the roof, as casually as if they were on the sidewalk in Sunnydale. Instead of on top of a systems supply warehouse, whatever the hell that was.

"Where are we going?" Spike was at the far edge of the roof now, standing with his back to Xander, looking down. He lifted his arms lazily, the cigarette jammed between his left-hand knuckles. The duster made him look like a big bat.

"Out for a walk," he said, and smiled at Xander over his shoulder. Then he stepped out into the air and dropped from sight.






Apparently, going for walks was Spike's way of teaching Xander the ropes. And there wasn't much walking involved. Sometimes it seemed like Spike's world was just a giant obstacle course, just a bunch of stuff to get over and around and through, usually while chain-smoking Marlboros and providing a running monologue about how the media machine had ruined rock and roll.

"It's all a sales pitch," he said, stepping up onto the bumper of a parked cark and starting to walk up the windshield. "Nobody's actually making music anymore. Just products, like bloody cheeseburgers. Here, we're going up." Up meant the fire escape; before Xander could even double back to get onto the sedan, Spike was halfway up the building.

"It's all just a big Habitrail to you, isn't it?" Xander gasped at the top, watching Spike study the distance to the roof of the building opposite. Then he jammed a hand into Spike's pocket and stole a cigarette. He liked smoking, he'd realized. It tasted good, and it was almost like eating, which he didn't actually like anymore, but which he sometimes missed. And the smell was familiar. Comforting, for some reason.

"Could you make that, you think?" Spike pointed at the far roof, ignoring the cigarette and letting Xander slip his lighter back into his pocket without comment. Xander squinted at the roof. Thirty feet, maybe forty.

"No way."

"What if you had to?" Spike cocked his head and studied the gap some more, then turned and walked back a few paces.

"Come on, Spike. No way, that's too far."

"I bet I can do it."

"You bet what, the use of your limbs? We're four storeys up."

"If I don't make it, you'll nurse me back to health, won't you?" Evil grin, and Xander just stood there silently, feeling the back of his neck prickle up. Don't do it, he wanted to say. Come on, don't do it, you're going to get hurt - The thought of Spike getting hurt kicked in suddenly, and the prickle went to a full electric shock. "Spike, cut it out."

Spike dropped his cigarette and ground it out under his heel, then craned his neck to gauge the distance again.

"Spike, no." He tried to make that sound firm, like a command, but it came out sounding desperate. "Quit being such a jerk - "

Spike was running before he could say anything else, and it was like the air woofed right out of Xander's gut, like he'd been punched and could hardly stand. Spike was at the edge in a second, and then he was in the air, big black bat, sailing. Then he was on the far roof, right on the lip, stumbling forward and laughing, turning around. Arms out, look at me stance.

"Made it!" he called, grinning.

Xander stood where he was, everything locked, his brain still treading water. Something in his spine and belly was curdling, tight and sour and frantic. Spike had landed a couple of feet from the edge of the roof. No more than that. Could have missed it. Easily.

"Fucking idiot," Xander whispered, and saw that he'd made fists of both his hands. Crushed his cigarette right in half, nothing left in his fingers but paper and dry shredded tobacco. A second later, he realized he was in game face.

"Told you!" Spike called. Pulling his cigarettes out of his pocket, digging for his lighter. "Easy as - "

Xander started running without even thinking, and it was perfect, his stride was just right for the edge of the roof, he hit it right on the ball and flew out, no hesitation. That was how you had to do it, he realized immediately - that was how it was supposed to feel. Like flight. Then he realized he wasn't flying, he was falling. And he was going to be just short, he wasn't going to make it.

He hit the edge of the roof and scrambled for a handhold, a toehold, anything. Four storeys up. God, what if he broke his back? He was such a fucking idiot. His fingers dragged over concrete, brick, and where the hell was Spike? - and then suddenly he caught hold. With all ten fingers, right on the lip of the roof, his legs dangling free. He hauled, got one elbow up and then the other, and then he was standing on the edge of the roof, panting, his chest and belly and knees ringing from the impact.

Spike was standing right there, cigarette jammed in his mouth, staring at him.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he asked.

Xander raised one hand, pointed a finger at Spike, and then couldn't think of anything to say. "You fucking idiot," he said at last.

"I'm an idiot? You just jumped forty feet for no reason."

"So did you, dickhead. And what if you didnít make it?"

"I wasn't going to not make it."

"You could have - " He was buzzing all over, still in game face, he couldn't seem to shake it off. He wanted to throw a punch, and he wanted to tackle Spike down onto the roof and lie on top of him, smell his cigarettes and blood and skin. "God, Spike, what am I supposed to do if you get dusted?"

"I wasn't going to get dusted jumping a gap, moron." Spike looked confused, a bit pissed off. "And if I did, you just...carry on. We're not joined at the hip, are we?"

"You - " No, right. They weren't. And Jesus Christ, Spike was right, he'd just jumped forty feet for no reason. He'd almost killed himself. Again.

"Look, you're all right." Spike clapped him on the shoulder, but it felt a little uneasy, a little forced. "I would have pulled you up if you'd really lost it. Just don't do that kind of thing again, all right?"

"What kind of thing?" Xander asked, stepping back and rubbing his forehead. He felt strangely off-balance, almost woozy, but he couldn't quite put his finger on why. Adrenaline, probably. Did he still have adrenaline?

"Don't go thinking you can do everything I can do," Spike said, kindly enough. "You're new at this, remember? No reason you should be able to do everything right off."

"No." He took another step back and tried to make the game face go down. Slowly, it started to soften. "Right."

"Good jump, though."

"Thanks."

There was a pause, and then Spike's hand appeared under his face, offering a cigarette. Xander shook his head. "No, thanks."

"Take it for later."

He took it and put it behind his ear, not caring one way or another, just so he wouldn't have to talk about it anymore. The game face was gone, and now he felt weirdly soft and empty. He'd been hungry an hour ago; now the thought of blood was just tiring. He wanted to go back to the motel and bury his head in the pillows and sleep.

"Up for a meal in the suburbs?" Spike's tone was light, casual. "There's a fire escape right over there."

"I'm not - I'm not really hungry," Xander said, scrubbing a hand through his hair. "You go ahead, I think I'll head back."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm gonna just go back and...I don't know, sleep." He started for the fire escape, already thinking about the silent room, the smell of strangers, the Bible radioactive in its drawer. There was an ache in his chest all of a sudden. Maybe he'd cracked some ribs.

"You all right?" Spike was following a few steps behind, sounding perturbed.

"I'm fine, yeah. I'll see you later."

He started down the fire escape, dropping from level to level without using the stairs, because it was faster and he just wanted to get back. In a few seconds he was on the ground, and couldn't hear Spike following. Okay. All he wanted to do right now was sleep, anyway.

He started walking for the motel, on foot like any regular person. After a minute or two he took the cigarette from behind his ear and ditched it.






At about a half hour to dawn, the motel room door opened and Spike came in. Xander didn't bother opening his eyes; he had his back to the door anyway. He'd been trying to sleep for the last five hours, and so far all he'd got was hungry and baffled. He kept seeing Spike make the jump, over and over, every time he closed his eyes. It kept cinching his chest tighter and tighter. Like the way he used to feel in the basement, sometimes, listening to the yelling upstairs.

He heard Spike drop the duster on the chair by the door, flip the deadbolt and the safety on, and toe his boots off. The curtains were drawn tight; the room was black. There was a faint smell of blood, which made him even hungrier. He should have gone with Spike; coming back here by himself was definitely sulky girlfriend behavior. And he wasn't Spike's girlfriend. He was his...well, he wasn't sure what he was, exactly. He was still figuring that part out.

He heard Spike go into the bathroom, brush his teeth in a cursory kind of way, futz with the tap, and then suddenly there was weight on the bed behind him and he jolted fully awake.

"What - ?"

"All right," Spike said. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, smelling like toothpaste and blood and cigarette smoke. "Look. First off, you're right, I wasn't thinking too well when I did that jump."

Xander turned and lay on his back, still trying to make his eyes focus properly. Spike was studying him with a sober expression, as if they were in the middle of a conversation that frankly, Xander couldn't remember starting.

"I was?" he said vaguely. Then, "Oh. Right. That was fucking stupid, Spike."

"Yeah, I know, and if you keep saying that, I'm going to smack you in the head. I won't - " He paused and looked away, clearly choosing his words. "I'll try not to do too many stupid things like that while you're around, all right?"

"While I'm - " Right, yeah, because they weren't joined at the hip, so sooner or later he wouldn't be around. This wasn't the time or place to think about how that made him feel. "Okay. Good."

"Second." Spike stared at him a few seconds, then went back to looking at the wall. Silence.

"Second?"

"Second, I haven't done it from this side before, all right? I've been on your end of the thing, but I haven't ever been on this end, and frankly I never thought I would be, and it's not the easiest thing in the world, all right?"

Xander lay still. "What thing?" he asked, after a minute.

"This whole - " Spike made a frustrated, back-and-forth hand gesture between them. "Siring you. God. I don't know what I was thinking, I really don't - "

"I've been meaning to ask, actually."

"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and to be honest it was touch and go right up to the final inning. I was going to just kill you outright, and then...I thought it'd be nice to have someone to watch telly with - "

"You turned me into a vampire so you'd have company watching television?"

"Look, the point is, I've never done this before, and there isn't a manual."

"Yeah, believe me, I get that."

"Right, so if you could stop being such a little prick for one minute, I could say I'm sorry I gave you a scare, and I won't do it again." He sat looking uncomfortably at the wall for a few seconds, then added quickly, "If I can help it."

Xander blinked, rubbed his hand over his face, then sat up. "Can I have a cigarette?" he asked, propping himself against the head of the bed.

"No. And while I'm at it, let me just point out that it could be a fuck of a lot worse."

"What could?"

"Having me as your sire. I mean, look at who I had."

Xander frowned. "Well, I was never very clear on who exactly that was, but either way, point."

"At least I'm not chaining you up in cellars or beating you with, I don't know, knotted ropes, right?"

"Uh, right."

"So my point is, it could be worse."

"Absolutely."

"All right then." Spike nodded, spread his hands on his knees, and looked at him. "Anything else we need to get straight?"

Xander opened his mouth, then closed it. The tightness in his chest was gone, but now he felt jittery, nervous, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He had a weird feeling there was supposed to be something else, something more. But all he had was that same weird urge he'd had before - to fall down on top of Spike and lie on him, smell him, feel the whole length of his body and know he wasn't going anywhere.

"No," he said, and wiped his palms on the blanket. Old habit; he didn't sweat anymore.

Spike studied him with a slight squint, as if waiting for him to go on. "All right," he said, and started to stand up. Xander sank back down into the pillows, fighting the tremor in his chest. He was breathing, he realized. What the hell was the matter with him?

"Oh, for Christ's sake." Spike was standing next to the bed, looking down at him with resignation or disgust or fondness, hard to say. "Right, well. In for a penny, I guess." He sat back down on the bed, put his hand to his mouth, and went to game face. His teeth popped into the flesh below his thumb and next thing Xander knew, there was a bloody palm in front of his face. "Go on."

For a second he didn't know what he was supposed to do, and he just stared. Then the smell hit him, and he leaned forward automatically and started sucking. Like a baby, like a petting zoo fawn at the bottle, sucking and jerking and grabbing Spike's hand in both of his to keep it there, in his mouth. The blood was cool and rich, it went straight up his nose to his brain and everything floated in it, he was floating in it, it was exactly right, everything was right. Spike was his sire. A quick flash of Spike making the jump again, and he instinctively sucked harder, cramming Spike's hand into his mouth, his shoulders tight and shaking, his fangs sliding down.

"Ow, fuck - " Something flicked him in the forehead, right between the eyes. "That's it, that's enough. Off." He ignored it, buckled down harder, started to chew on the cool smooth smoky skin around the wound. Spike's skin, Spike's taste. Sire taste. He was never, ever, ever going to leave -

Something whacked him in the back of the head and he coughed and lost his place. His mouth was empty, Spike's hand was gone. He scrambled for it and Spike got a hand tight around his throat, pinning him down into the pillows.

"I said, get off." When he didn't stop struggling, he got a hard shake and another flick between the eyes. "God, you're greedy."

"Give it back," he gasped, and Spike frowned.

"Give you an inch and you take a yard. That's enough, Harris. Go to sleep." A last rough shake that made the mattress creak, and Spike let him go. Xander lay still on his back, licking his lips, while Spike stood up, stripped off his shirt and jeans, and got into his own bed. The whole room was buzzing. The whole world was buzzing. He wanted more.

"Spike."

"No."

The ceiling was bumping, rippling, radiating happiness. He watched it with a smile on his face. He could feel his fangs against his lips.

"Spike."

Pause. Sigh.

"What?"

"Can we get me some new clothes tomorrow?"

"Christ, yeah." The buzz was declining, tapering down to a warm glow all over his body. His chest and belly, his dick, his fingertips. "Now go to sleep, pillock."

He closed his eyes and floated while the sun got ready to rise.





Part Four



They didn't seek out the bikers; the bikers found them. Karma, maybe. The ghost of Samoyed Man grabbing the giant heavenly Magic 8 ball in one pissed-off, bloodless fist and shaking it like a mother until it came up on You lose, suckers.

Or maybe that was sucker, singular. Because really, Spike didn't seem to have too much of problem with them. He dodged the bat, ducked the punches, hopped onto the hood of the DeSoto without missing a beat. From there, he had a good vantage point to kick heads in. So he did that, while Xander got pummeled against the chain link by a big guy with hairy shoulders and a prison tat. San Quentin - that was interesting, he thought, while the guy drummed on his kidneys. I wonder if he ever boxed Danny Trejo.

"Fight back!" Spike yelled finally, and more or less automatically, Xander snapped around and caught the guy with a...well, maybe it was an uppercut, he didn't really have the taxonomy down, but anyway, it snapped his Corey Harts in half and dropped him like third period French. Spike whooped. "See?"

"See what?" Xander mumbled, touching his jaw, slewing back toward Spike to try to re-establish contact. "What are these guys even - " The guy behind Spike was pulling something out of his jeans, and it wasn't a fifty. "Spike, gun!"

Spike got lively at that. He was off the hood in a second, down in the stumbling gang, everyone clutching a jaw or a shoulder or a gut, and the guy with the gun - was there just one? did they all share a gun, or something? - waved it around in a crazy, I've-seen-too-many-standoff-flicks kind of way.

"Spike," Xander yelled in what he hoped was a heartfelt and convincing tone. "Let's go."

Spike gave him a sharp frown - the DeSoto, he wouldn't leave the DeSoto to these tools - and tossed one of the littler bikers over the hood, into the gun-wielder. They collided with a grunt, and it was like Xander saw Spike start forward with the soles of his feet, because somehow he was already moving forward too. There were half a dozen guys still standing up, and Spike was heading for the guy with the gun.

Donít go game face, don't go game face, Xander's brain babbled down his spine. You can have a beer later, you can have blood sausage and pay-per-view porn, just don't go to game face. Spike was over the hood, laying out, he thought he was fucking Gabrielle Reese or something, that was a gun, he was diving for a gun, the stupid prick -

Spike, biker, and gun disappeared behind the DeSoto, and Xander landed on the hood with a crunch of angry metal.

"Spike - "

There was tussling down there, and as soon as he saw it he relaxed. Nobody beat Spike at tussling. The gun was more or less in Spike's hands, and it wasn't even pointing at him, it was pointing up in the air, no, wait, it was pointing at Xander, and wow, it was kind of big, he could see right down the barrel -

Something punched him in the gut and then he was lying on the pavement, sodium arc lights in his eyes, and his elbows hurt. Someone was snarling. His body was tight, electroshock tight, and his throat was wet and full and then the boots around his head were gone and Spike slid into view like he'd been out for a fly.

What the fuck - Xander tried to say.

"Oh, shit," Spike said.






Spike hauled him into the passenger seat, handed him a not-very-clean towel that he'd produced from somewhere, and jogged back around the nose of the car to the driver's side. Seeing Spike jog was a little disturbing. But by now Xander could talk, and talk he did.

"You shot me," he said, as soon as Spike's door opened. Sliding in fast, Spike gave him a brief, guilty glance. "You asshole."

"I didn't mean to." The windshield was starred where the baseball bat had cracked it, and for a second Spike paused with his hands on the key and steering wheel, studying the damage. About to get out and rub it with his thumb, maybe.

"Do not start with the car," Xander snapped. "Donít even fucking think about thinking about the fucking car right now, Spike."

"Right, right." A quick, guilty shake of Spike's shoulders as he banished all thoughts of glass filler, and the engine roared to life. "Look, overall I think it went pretty well."

Xander sat open-mouthed, clutching the blood-soaked towel to his gut. Spike got shifty-eyed.

"Must have been a dozen of them," he said quickly. "Only two of us, and you can't fight for piss - " He must have caught the slight, incredulous widening of Xander's eyes at that, because backpedalling commenced. "I mean, did you see the size of that git you dropped? Ruddy monster. Try not to bleed on the seat, right?"

Xander turned his head slowly away, his neck stiff, possibly broken, and stared out the window at the alleys flying by. Under the towel, he was starting to feel things. So far it'd just been numbness, a sense of impact, like he'd been winded with a Nerf bat. Now he was starting to get tingling feelers, like the nerves were reeling back to their feet and looking around at the wreckage and starting to hyperventilate -

"This isn't good," he said faintly, lifting the towel to check beneath. When he let the pressure off, blood came out like there was a tap in his stomach. "Spike - "

"You're fine," Spike said firmly, his knuckles white around the steering wheel, his foot through the floor. "You're fine, Harris. We're taking you home, and you're going to be fine."






Home was the roach motel du jour, and by the time they were there he was writhing and gasping, biting his own mouth to keep from yelling. The seat was soaked in blood, the towel was just a gesture. It felt like someone had a hot poker in his belly, like he was being roasted from inside, Satan's own marshmallow.

"Fuck you, Samoyed Man," he gasped, when Spike opened his door and hesitated, his hands wavering in midair. Then his mouth filled up with blood and he had to lean out and spit. He managed to get a good percentage on Spike's boots, which was something.

"Okay, how about we try this - " Spike was still maneuvering, trying to decide where to grab him, so Xander just tipped and fell and let Spike catch. It hurt like hell, and he lost the towel with a wet thump and a spattering of stuff he really didn't want to think about, but Spike kept his lunch down and somehow got them through the door to their room. He put Xander down on the nearest bed and disappeared. Xander bled into the sheets.

He may have greyed out for a bit, if he still had the capacity to do that, because when he checked in again he was lying on his back and there were cleanish motel towels packed against his belly, and he felt like he was being sawed in half. "Jesus fucking Christ," he whispered, grabbing his gut. Then he rolled over and threw up a bunch of blood onto the mattress. Housekeeping was going to be pissed.

"You're going to be fine," Spike said, appearing beside him at eye level, which must mean he was crouching down. "You want a slug?" Incredibly, he was holding a flask.

Xander used his super laser eye beams of death to burn twin smoking holes in Spike's forehead. "You shot me in the gut," he hissed. "No, thank you. I do not want anything to drink."

Spike shrugged and took a slug, himself. "'s just a bullet," he said after a minute, settling down cross-legged on the carpet and starting to sort through his pockets for his cigarettes. "You'll be fine in..." He paused and gave Xander a critical look. "Three days, tops."

Xander freed one bloody hand to claw uselessly in the air in front of Spike's face. Going for the eyes. Spike ignored him.

"Tell you what," he said, popping a cigarette between his lips and lighting it efficiently. "I'll go out, find you some morphine. That make you happy?"

Xander hesitated. "Does morphine work?"

"Christ, yeah. Knock you right out, make you king for a day."

"Can you actually get some?"

Spike considered. "Where are we, again?"

"Oklahoma."

"Oh, sure, yeah. No problem." He levered himself to his feet, taking his flask and cigarette with him. "Don't go running off, all right?"

Xander clawed for his knees, but it was too late. A cool hand ruffled his hair, paused a minute on the back of his neck, and was gone. The door closed with a quiet click.

He curled in on the white-hot stab in his belly, and tried not to breathe.






It was almost dawn before Spike got back. Which was another way of saying, almost three hours. Which was another way of saying, a million billion years. They were past pain and into some kind of hallucinatory alternate dimension, where the giant fucking needle in his stomach was the be all and end all, and everything else was just little paper cutouts in black and white.

"Sorry," Spike said, shrugging off the duster. "Guy moved house since last time I was through."

Xander just lay there, staring at the black blood stains on the white comforter, second to second, hearing the words like cartoon captions floating in one ear, out the other. Spike was back. That was great. Great, great, great. The pain in his belly was like a friend now. He was busy chatting with it.

Dimly, he heard Spike uncrumple a paper bag, take some stuff out, futz around. Then there was weight on the bed beside him and his hands were being lifted off his gut. That was bad - he had everything balanced. He tried to resist, and Spike didnít let him.

"Come on. I know. Let's see your arms, though."

He could barely feel his arms, let alone his hands or feet. They were like T Rex hands, sad little claws hanging off the huge swollen agony of his monstrous T Rex Torso of Pain. He had to remember, Spike did this to him. All of it. Spike vamped him, then shot him in the gut. When he was upright again, he was so going to kick Spike in the shins.

"There we go," Spike said, and Xander realized his left sleeve was up, and there was a pinch in his forearm. He canted his head down and saw that Spike was shooting him up. Great. If only his mother could see him now. When the plunger was all the way in, Spike slipped the needle out and let his forearm fall, then rooted in a paper bag beside him on the bed and took out another syringe, capped and ready to go.

"You trying to kill me?" Xander said. Slurred. He didn't feel any different. Still in agony. Fucking morphine. Fucking Spike.

"Trying to knock you out," Spike said, reaching over him for his right arm. Xander graciously let him have it, and Spike did that side too, then kneeled back on his heels as if he'd done something worthwhile. "Right, move your arms a bit."

Xander plumbed his depleted inner reserves, and managed to get both arms up to double-bird him.

Spike didn't pause, just took hold of his wrists and raised his arms a couple of times, like an old-fashioned resuscitation attempt. The movement went straight to the hot knife in his belly and twisted it into his spine. He gasped and tried to yank free.

"Fuck, Spike - " Then the weirdest thing happened - it was like numbness just dripped down his arms into his chest, and in a minute it was flooding his belly, and the knife melted free and washed downstream and his whole body was a beautiful salmon swimming in cool, clear, dioxin-free waters.

"Gotta get it through your system," Spike said, from somewhere far, far away, on the tree-lined Canadian shore. "Wait till it really kicks in, you're gonna love it - "

A moose raised its sodden beard from the eddies and watched him swim between its knobby forelegs, and a beaver sculled busily beside him, and a Canada goose took off flapping and soaring, through the wide cool blue sky, into the great beyond. Somewhere, a Mountie yodeled.






"I had the weirdest...thing," Xander said, into the pillow.

"Yeah?" Spike wasn't really listening - he knew that, he could hear it in Spike's voice. Spike was thinking about his hair, or the duster, or the stars in the DeSoto's windshield. Or how soon they could get on the road again, probably. Oklahoma was old.

"This whole...fish thing."

"Morphine does that." Sound of Spike shaking his packet of cigarettes. Not more than three in there, at this point. Serious. "I had this thing one time, I thought I was a badger."

Xander lay silently, taking that in. After a minute, he said, "So, anyway. What happens now?"

"Now..." Spike trailed off, and the Zippo fired up. Xander turned over with an effort. It was amazing how fast he healed. Two days, and he'd sealed right up like a Ziploc bag, nothing but a red flower on his belly to show that Spike owed him one. Well, that and the fact that he'd be setting off metal detectors till the day he was dusted. "Now we get you a meal, and hit the road."

"A meal," Xander repeated vaguely. He was exhausted, and also half-starved. The thought of blood made his mouth fill up, made his stomach curl tight and bitchy. "God, yeah."

"Right." Spike was standing by the dresser, Big Bad, ready to go. Smoking his cigarette and looking down at Xander a little oddly. Xander blinked and tried to look back. He was the kind of weak that you could call kitten, if you weren't a guy and a vampire and really fully not in need of any more emasculating epithets, thanks.

"Right." He hauled himself up to sitting, dropped his legs over the side of the bed like lead sinkers, and fitted his feet into his shoes. "Cool. Let's blow this popsicle stand."

Spike hesitated, seemed about to say something, then just hovered until they were both in the DeSoto and Xander was slumped against the passenger door.

"Right," he said again, irrelevantly, and stalled the engine, and finally got them out of there.






"Frankly?" Xander said, peering through the patches of clear, unbroken windshield at the bar across the street. "I donít know."

Spike accepted that without comment, and they sat there for a few more minutes, watching people trickle out in pairs and alone. It was half past two. Not a great part of town. Sooner or later, they'd get a meal out of this.

"Maybe - " Xander tried to think, tried to figure out how this was going to work. "What if you dropped me off, and did a little herding?" That might work - if he didn't have to chase, he might be okay. He could stand up, and if he smelled blood he was pretty sure he'd feel strong enough to grab.

"You think you can take a punch?" Spike's tone was neutral, and he didn't look away from the bar. Xander thought about it.

"Take one, yeah. Remain standing...I donít know."

Spike shook his head. "Bad idea."

Okay. Well, then... "Shit, Spike. I don't know."

They sat there a few seconds, and then Spike put the car in drive and they rolled away down the street. Xander sat crumpled against the door, a dark weight in his belly, fighting with the hunger. He was thinking of all those nature documentaries Willow used to watch on the Learning Channel - how when the wolf got sick, it starved to death. Somehow that felt like a newly relevant fact.

A few blocks up, Spike turned into an alley and parked midway down. When he cut the engine, Xander put his hand on the door handle. They were going to have a shot at it, apparently. Okay, he'd see how far he got, and if all else failed, it looked like an excellent location for rats.

"Stay here," Spike said, getting out on his own side. Xander frowned, hand still poised, and Spike leaned back in. "I'll take care of it."

"You'll - " You'll what, pick up a couple of pints from the cold beer and blood store? He didn't have a chance to say it, though - Spike was already gone.

Under better circumstances, he'd have gone with tradition and ignored Spike, popped his door, followed along. For some reason, though, he didn't do it. Maybe because his entire body was made of lead and asphalt. Maybe because the drugs had fried his brain. Maybe because you never knew when Spike was going to shoot you in the gut.

"You'll take care of it," he muttered sourly, and sank down in his seat with his arms crossed tightly over his chest. "This I have to see."






The driver's side door opened and he scrambled up out of sleep, hands on the dashboard and the seat belt, sure they were going to have to make a break for it. With Spike you always had to make a break for it. Or be prepared to, at least.

But Spike just slid in and looked at Xander as if he were more than a little eccentric. "Everything all right?"

"Everything's - " Xander paused. Spike smelled of blood. Low, velvety, rich. Strong. He stank of it. Like he'd drunk a family. His eyes were bright, dancing, the I've-got-a-secret look. "Jesus Christ, what did you do?"

"Told you," Spike said smoothly, starting the engine and pulling out. "Took care of it."






It took twenty minutes to find an out-of-the-way pull-out, a little public park with bushes and trees and probably a lot of gay guys getting up to no good. Xander couldn't have cared less where they were. His head was full of the smell of blood, and his belly was writhing in an all-new dance of pain. The feed-me dance. His belly had no memory at all, and thank God for it.

"So - " When Spike cut the engine and killed the headlights, it was will alone that kept him from reaching over and jerking the duster open. He must have blood bags on him. God knows how, but he found a source and he had some bags, and God bless soulless, conniving, undependable, pain-in-the-ass Spike for always knowing where to score. "Come on, Spike. I'm dying, here."

Spike gave him a slight, amused glance, then shrugged and sat back. "All yours, then."

Xander just sat there for a second, nonplussed. Then he lost patience with that and yanked the duster away from Spike's side. Nothing. Just skinny ribs under a trademark black T. He checked the other side, while Spike's smile grew. "What, asshole?" He plumbed the pockets, felt a lot of stuff he was pretty sure he didn't ever want to feel again, and came up empty. "Spike, come on. I'm serious. Where is it?"

"Where's what?"

"The blood, dickhead."

Spike raised his eyebrows. "Thought you knew, mate." He let his head fall back against the window, and the smile flattened a little. "In me."

Xander sat still, one hand still wiping something sticky off on his jeans. "Yeah," he said slowly, after a second. "I get that you already ate, Spike. What I want to know is, where's mine?"

Spike just looked at him. The car was very quiet and dark. After a few seconds, a funny warmth started in Xander's belly.

"Okay," he said, raising one finger. "Okay, hang on."

"Thought you were hungry."

"I am." His eyes were on Spike's throat, he couldnít help it. Long white throat, strong and thin and there was blood just under the skin. Blood that Spike owed him. He pulled his eyes back up to Spike's face, and realized in an instant that that was the point, that was why Spike was sitting like that, to show his throat. "Spike, come on, I'm not going to bite you." At the same time, the warmth curled down from his belly toward his groin. He took a deep breath, and Spike smiled.

"Yeah, you are," he said, and put one hand out in invitation.

Xander wavered a minute longer, trying to think of rational objections, and everything he could think of was shot down by the B-52 of Vampire. I'm a vampire.. Spike was right. Spike was right there. Spike was, in his fucked-up way, taking care of things.

Xander leaned forward and pressed his hands to Spike's chest, his cock to Spike's thigh, his lips to Spike's throat. No game face, no fangs. Just soft lips, touching soft skin. Spike stiffened, seemed for a second not to know what to do. Then his hands came around Xander's shoulders and the back of his neck, and they merged into a silent, urgent, compact body. Parking, some part of Xander's mind thought. They were parking. He was parking with Spike.

When he finally bit he did it carefully, two neat reverent holes that ran sweet over his tongue while Spike's cock shoved wetness over his own bared belly. When he came, he buried his head in Spike's neck and clung.

When it was over they were both a mess, damp and exhausted and quiet.

"I can't believe you shot me," Xander said from his side of the car, his eyelids sliding closed.

"Whiner," Spike said, and ran a hand over Xander's face in tender mockery.





Part Five

"What I'm saying is, there's absolutely no way they could have done it." He gauged, jumped, and got a nice breeze in the face for a couple of seconds. Whump. "It's impossible."

"Right, that's what they said about cold fusion."

"Cold fusion was impossible. Is. Still."

"That's what they want you to think, isn't it?"

Xander paused, put a hand out in midair, and closed his eyes. "Hang on. I'm overloading on what-the-fuck."

"I'm just saying, if Watts had lost an arm in a car wreck, the band could have gone on."

"And I'm still back at, 'Why the hell are we having this conversation?'"

"If some wanker from Sheffield with hair down his back and the rhythm of Thatcher could do it, so could Watts."

"Look, first of all, Leppard sucked after Hysteria. Actually, Leppard sucked before Hysteria too. So it doesn't matter. And since when do you know from cold fusion?"

"I'm dead, I'm not illiterate."

"Oh right, I've been meaning to ask where our book of the month gets sent--"

Spike looked sharply over Xander's shoulder, and Xander shut up. In the time it took him to turn around, he heard it too--a couple of bodies coming up the fire escape, quiet and fast. He stepped around behind Spike, faded back a couple of feet, and waited.

Two vamps hopped up onto the roof, a man and a woman, black and white. Matched set. Moving fast but not in a hurry, passing a cigarette back and forth. Looking sort of vinyl and Goth-y, which, after a few weeks of hauling the DeSoto from mechanic to mechanic in the cowtowns of Flyoverland, was pretty welcome. Lipstick, even. Crazy.

They made it a few feet across the roof before the man glanced up and saw Spike and Xander standing there. He shorted out right away, his eyes flipping over to yellow, the ridges starting to bubble up. Xander felt his own head lower and his shoulders rise, and Spike twitched a hand behind his back.

"Pleasant evening." One of the enduring surprises of the last couple of months had been that Spike could be polite. And sometimes was, when he thought he could get something out of it.

The man kept tweaking, easing into a low growl, and the skin at the back of Xander's neck started to tickle. The woman looked startled, but she got over it fast. Nodded and patted the guy's shoulder.

"Sure." She was looking them over, figuring them out. "You're going to Kyd's."

"Thought we might." Spike took out his cigarettes, shot one out of the pack, and lit up. "Used to be a pretty decent place, some nights."

The woman smiled. "It still is. We're off for some carry-out, but we might come back later." The smile widened; she had a stone of some kind in her canine. "Maybe we'll see you there."

"Maybe." Spike nodded, still being polite, and the woman tugged at her boyfriend's arm. He just stood there, bristling all over, making a sound like the DeSoto on a bad day.

"Come on, Willard." She turned another smile on them. "Don't mind him, he's all fucked up." She tugged again, and Willard didn't move. She smacked him in the back of the head, hard enough to make him stumble, and for a second he turned the growl on her. She raised an eyebrow. The growl choked off. "Yeah, no, I thought not."

Xander shifted slightly, and caught the hinky little tensing-up movement to Spike's shoulders. Along with the look the woman flicked back at him, just half a second long, plenty of time for a full assessment. Whoops.

"Won't keep you, then," Spike said smoothly, as if nothing had happened. She gave him another little smile, because apparently she had a whole trunk full of them, she was the smile lady, she had the local smile franchise. Willard didn't look too happy about that. Maybe he wasn't a customer.

"Maybe we'll bring you back something," she said. Purred. She was purring now. Xander shifted again, and Willard glanced back at him this time. For the briefest microsecond, Xander felt a kind of crazed, tenuous bond hang between them. The kind of bond you feel with a slavering demon whose girlfriend is hitting on your...dammit, he still didn't have that part figured out--your sire, okay, fine--right in front of you. Then Willard got jiggy with some fang, and the bond folded up into a dusty little whiff and died a good and proper death.

Spike gave a half-polite little shrug that clearly said, Up to you, and the woman lowered her eyelids and turned away.

"I'm Fawn," she said over her shoulder, starting for the far side of the roof. "You can tell them I sent you."

"Will do," Spike said. Willard made a sound that might have been the twinkle in the eye of the father of a growl, and Spike's head turned toward him. "Off you slope, now." He didn't bother to watch Willard's brain and ego tussle that one out; there were cigarettes to be lit. Brain won. By a hair.

When they were both gone, off down the opposite fire escape, Spike started walking again. The crunch of roof grit under his boots seemed very loud now. And frankly, if Fawn and Willard were representative of the clientele at this Kyd's place, Xander was pretty sure he'd rather stay home and watch Hammer films on late-night.

"So, okay." He started after Spike, wishing for the gajillionth time since he'd joined the choir invisible that he'd got a duster in the deal. It was just so damn cool. "They seemed like nice folks."

"Next time you start dancing around behind me like that, I'm going to toss you off the building."

"I shifted, Spike. I settled. It was, like, a millimeter."

"Good thing it didn't make her notice you."

"I was standing right there, it wasn't like she didn't see me anyway."

"Of course she bloody saw you, it's a matter of principle--"

"Oh yeah, I forgot there's principles to it now."

"Bloody right there are. None of which you seem to give a rat's arse about--"

"Which principle are you following when you call Angel a poof, exactly?"

"The point is, you can either be a useless wanker on a short leash like that Willard twat, or you can learn the job and do it right and--"

"'Maybe we'll see you there,'" Xander said, pitching his voice just south of Baffin Island. "'You can tell them I sent you.'"

"Shut up."

"'I'm Faaaaawn.'"

"You sound like a...what are those things?"

"A woman?"

"Blue, big eyes, got little chef hats on?"

"Last surviving members of the Donner Party?"

"Saturday morning telly."

"Smurfs."

"Right, yeah. You sound like a bloody Smurf, Harris."

"So what principle kicks in when she shoves her tongue down your throat? Do Willard and I go sit in the kitchen and talk Amway?"

"You're getting boring," Spike said, swinging off the ledge onto the fire escape. "If I'd known you were going to be this much of a pain I'd never have--"

"Turned me," Xander finished for him, following him down the shaking steps. "If I'd known you were going to be this much of an asshole, I'd have died."

Spike sort of laughed at that, and Xander smiled to himself. It was fun being a superhero, or a superantihero, or whatever he was now. It was fun leaping high buildings and swooping down on the unsuspecting, especially if he didn't think too hard about what happened after the swoop. But it was weird--he'd got used to all that pretty quickly, and now he found that pretty much all his attention went to what he was starting to think of as My Science Project: Spike. He spent way too much time thinking about Spike, about what Spike liked and didn't like, about what Spike might want in a few minutes or a few hours, about what Spike was saying and how he was saying it. Not paying attention, per se, because to be honest most of what Spike said still passed Xander by like a warm calypso breeze, but more just...dwelling. Increasingly neurotically, he was aware. On Spike.

He was starting to get this whole sire thing, the way it could mess with your brain. And he had a feeling Spike was starting to get the other side of it, too--the holy christ, I sired this idiot side. He got this look on his face sometimes, when he thought Xander wasn't watching. Sort of bemused and fond and at the same time kind of horrified. Like he couldn't quite believe what he'd done, or whatever Xander was doing at the moment.

"All I'm saying is," Xander said, hitting the pavement with another satisfying whump, "that I think she likes you. If you know what I mean."

Spike gave him the you idiot look. "'course she likes me."

"Right, of course. Because you're Alistair Crowley's gift to women, I forgot. And the coda to my statement was: if she does anything more than flash that carnie rock at you, I'm going to puke actuary hemo all over her shoes."

Spike frowned. "That guy was an actuary?"

"Said so in his wallet."

"Damn. Keep meaning to ask one of those about life expectancy tables."

Xander paused, considered the conversational detour and the lightless thicket into which it led, then shook his head and kept on the high road. "I don't want to be a bitch, here, but I've got a bad feeling about this Kyd's place."

"You'll love it." Spike swung around on his heel and started down the alley. Toward a dead end, as far as Xander could see. "When's the last time you saw a lamia sing lounge?"

"I-- Huh."

"See what I mean?" Spike flashed him a grin over one shoulder, stopped, scanned the ground with a slight frown, then raised one boot and started banging with his heel. "Bloody back door--"

"Spike, that's a delivery door." Spike ignored him and kept kicking, and after a few seconds there was a grating sound and he stepped back. The trapdoor swung open and clattered against the ground, and a long, sharp wooden pole came up out of the gloom and hovered around his chest. He ignored it. Xander, on the other hand, found himself all of a sudden standing right there, his neck itching and his hands hot, reaching out to intervene. Down below, someone growled. Sounded big.

"Fawn sent us," Spike said cheerfully, and there was a brief pause while Xander kept a nervous hand on the giant shishkebab stake. Below them, grumpy whuffling.

"Awright," someone grunted, and the stake jerked back fast enough to leave splinters in Xander's palm. He winced, and Spike slung an arm around his neck, which almost tipped him right down the stairs.

"You're going to love this," Spike said happily. He planted a kiss on Xander's cheek, and Xander was pummeled by a simultaneous ripcurl of irritation and lust, and then he was being yanked stumbling down the steep steps into darkness and the smell of fish.





Part Six



If there was a secret to controlling his new, supersonic vampiric senses, Xander hadn't learned it yet. Times like this, he really wished he had.

"It smells like cod," he said at the bottom of the stairs, hiding his nose in the crook of his elbow. "Rock, ling, Atlantic. I'm not sure."

"Shut up," Spike said.

"Possibly perch. Outside chance of bream."

"Shut up."

"This is a great place, Spike. It's not often I get the chance to really inhale the nightlife, you know?"

"Shut--"

The door clanged shut above them, and Xander jumped. There were people around them, he realized. No, wait--he revised that thought. Not people. People had a certain set number of limbs, and a generally reliable arrangement of them. People didn't bubble.

"Spike..."

"Shut up."

They were standing in darkness on a wet stone floor, and there was a sound of water running somewhere nearby. Around them, in a room that felt pretty big, was a kind of convergence of shadowy nastiness. Lots of bulky black bodies, all of them apparently waiting for something.

"Spike..."

"Back up. Now."

Back up where? Xander thought. He was standing at the foot of the staircase; there was nowhere to go. Then he realized that Spike meant Go back up the stairs, you fucking idiot, and lifted his foot to do as he was told, like a good little fledgling. Something heavy and damp came down on his shoulder and started soaking through his shirt.

"Spike, I think--" Then there was something over his face, cold and wet and spongy, and his brain went simultaneously Ew and Fuck, and with the remaining three grey cells left to him, he game faced. It was like biting Jell-O. Fish Jell-O. His mouth filled up with it and he gagged, and whatever it was lifted him up in a cold, clammy embrace like it was time to begin the beguine. He heard scuffling, a single furious "Fucking hell--" that cut off suddenly. That made him lash out harder, as hard as he could with arms and legs that were strangely heavy, cold and dumb and unresponsive. He gnawed at the Jell-O, tried to yell, tried to kick or grab, and got nowhere. There was bubbling in his ears. He was being smothered by a serenity fountain. That was seriously fucking lame.

This sucks, he tried to say, and, if you do anything to Spike I'll go Exxon Valdez all over your watery ass--

He had a second to be struck by the weirdness of the fact that he was worried about Spike's health rather than his own, and then the coldness in his limbs crept right into his brain and he stopped thinking altogether. Which was a relief.

Xander woke up in four inches of cold standing water, on a stone floor, in darkness. For a few seconds he lay still, marvelling at the sensation of water running up his nose without drowning him, and then he started to feel the rest of his body. He felt like shit.

"I feel like shit," he said, levering himself up onto hands and knees, and then unsteadily to his feet. "Holy shit, do I feel like shit."

There was some kind of weird slime all over him, his face and hair and clothes. He was soaked to the bone and his shoes were squishing. More important, and what would form the main body of his written complaint to the Third International Comintern of Spike, was the bone-deep ache all through his body. His skull hurt. His toes hurt. His spine felt like it had been twisted and yanked until it snapped with a festive scattering of nerve endings, like a Christmas cracker. He stood swaying for a minute, his hands holding his brain inside his head.

"Ow."

"It gets better," someone said, and he spun around, lost his balance, and caught his weight with his fingertips on the floor. There was another vamp lying in the water by the wall, propped up like Miss Edith against a bound and wriggling chambermaid. He had dark brown hair, a ponytail, black jeans and a black T-shirt. The vampire uniform. Focus, Xander thought.

"What gets better?"

"The ow." The vampire shrugged, raised one arm slowly, and waggled it in midair. "See? And I've only been lying here...what, a couple of hours?"

"What the hell is going on?"

"Odobenans," the vamp said morosely. Xander just stood there. The vamp looked up at him and raised an incredulous eyebrow. "Walrussians?" Xander kept looking. Both eyebrows went up. "Walrus demons?"

"Oh. Right." Xander rubbed the back of his neck and tried to think. The vampire made a pfffft sound.

"What are you, like, three minutes old?"

"Hey, I'm the one standing up here, pal."

"Yeah, kudos to you. Enjoy that. We're both going to die in here."

Xander lookd away, still rubbing his neck. They were in a windowless stone room, some kind of storage room maybe, empty except for some wooden pallets and a bunch of soaked, flattened cardboard boxes. The water on the floor was running in through a grate at one side of the room, and out through another grate at the other. There was a powerful smell of fish in the air.

"Okay." He stood there a minute longer, trying to make his brain stop pulsing like that. "Okay, so. Walrussians. They're bad, right?"

"Son, you are really going to die."

"Shut up. Why do the Walrussians want to kill us?"

The vamp chuckled, and Xander slewed around again to glare at him. "They don't want to kill us, kid. They don't give a damn about us, we're just, like--" He made a little poof gesture with one hand, then frowned. "Ow. But yeah, Walrussians aren't down with all this bipedal crap."

"Yeah, okay. So...?"

"Why the hell does anyone do anything? They're getting paid."

"Paid?"

"Yeah, you know, someone gives you something and you do what they tell you--"

"I have enough motor function to make it over there and kick you in the face."

The vamp held up two hand, whooooooah. "Chill out, little man. You're dead anyway, remember? No big."

"Who's paying the Walrussians to kill us?"

"Fawn."

Xander's brain went blank for a minute, and he thought, Who's Fawn? Then he remembered. "Why is Fawn paying the Walrussians to kill us?"

The vamp rolled his eyes. "You are so going to--"

"Thank you, Madame Blavatsky."

"Fawn's been jockeying for this domain for months, sport. She gets the Walrussians onside, they pick off everyone who comes into Kyd's this weekend, which is, like, every major vamp in the zip code, and boom." He tried to snap and frowned. "Ow. Anyway, suddenly Chicago's, like, Fawnago."

Xander stood squinting at him, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Okay, that was a little much."

"So, Fawn's axing Chicago vamps."

"Yes."

"With the help of these...walrus demons."

"Right."

"And we just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The vamp smiled ruefully and shrugged. "Sorry, little man. Hey, you got any smokes?"

"Where's Spike?"

There was a pause, and then the vamp said carefully, "I don't know who you mean." He had brown eyes, and the whites were very white.

"Spike. My--" Xander hesitated, wiped his mouth, then went for it. "My sire. This was all his fucking idea, and if he's out walking around somewhere while I'm stuck in here breathing sturgeon and talking to you--" He turned away to study the door, and to hide the fact that he was considering a totally different scenario. Spike could be dead. They could have killed him. Fawn or one of her bubbly walrus pals could have staked him, or they could be torturing him right now, Spike could be injured, in trouble, dead--

"Spike's your sire," the other vamp said vaguely, somewhere behind him. It was kind of a thoughtful tone, but Xander was examining the door, trying to find the screws in the hinges under all the muck, and he wasn't really listening. "Spike, huh? Been a long time since I heard that name..."

There were screws, Phillips head, which meant a wooden frame, which meant he could maybe break it, right? He could break wooden things, he'd done it before. He'd broken a lot of stuff by accident, he had to be able to break this on purpose. He just needed his fingers to work properly, and his arms, and his brain--

There was a strange moment of silence behind him, just long enough for him to get a spidey sense tingle and think, What the hell--? He started to turn and something slammed into him, cracking his head against the door. There was an arm around his neck, yanking his head back, a hand knotted in his hair. Seriously bad blood breath in his face.

"Just so you know," the vamp said conversationally, "it's nothing personal. Spike owes me a fledgling from way back. I like you, so I'll make it quick."

Xander snapped his head back, connected with chin, saw stars. The vamp yelled, and just for a second the grip around Xander's neck loosened. He took the opportunity to sink his teeth into the vamp's forearm, game facing in the process. The blood he got was cold and antique, and he thought, Oh shit-- before being flung sideways into space. There was always a wall at times like that, ready and waiting. He hit it, slid down, and made kindling out of a pile of pallets. Get up, his brain said, but his body just lay there, stunned and cringing, while reports flooded in from all points that he was broken and probably past warranty.

"Little fucker," the vamp said, in a tone that came close to admiration. 'You bit me."

Get up, Xander's brain said again, like a coach standing anxiously over a passed-out cross country junior. Come on tiger, up an' at 'em, lookin' good, you can do it--

"Okay, so." The vamp was walking over, taking his time by the sound of it. "I was going to be a gentleman about this, you know? I mean, you're clearly a new recruit, and it's not your fault you're Spike's little pegboy--"

Hey! Xander's brain said.

"--but now you've gone and taken a chunk out of me, which is seriously uncool, so now I'm going to have to teach you a lesson. Before I kill you."

He kicked aside some of the broken pallets, and Xander's brain had a thought.

"Don't feel too bad about it, little man. I won't hurt you as much as Fawn would, if she got the chance." More wood scattered with a splash, and Xander's hand closed around a broken shard. He lay still, trying to ignore the red-hot pain growing down his right side.

"And for what it's worth, you did pretty good. If you weren't Spike's, I might consider taking you on, you know? I can always use a boy who knows how to take a beating." The pallet in front of Xander's face shifted, then disappeared, and suddenly the vamp was right over him. They looked at each other for a second, and then the vamp leaned over and grabbed Xander's shoulders. "You all busted up, little man?"

Xander swung the stake. The vamp caught it. They looked at each other again.

"What's your name, kid?" the vamp asked gently.

"Xander," Xander said.

"You didn't actually think that was going to work, did you, Xander?"

"I thought I'd give it a try."

The vamp worked the stake out of his hand, tossed it across the room, and patted him on the head. "Good job. Okay, let's start with me breaking the fingers on this hand."

Xander tried to yank his hand away and got nowhere. His brain was still slow, still trying to catch up. He hadn't quite processed the fact that the staking thing hadn't worked yet. It always worked in the movies. The hero was down and out, no way to go but loose, and in the face of impending doom, a last-minute plan was conceived. And it worked. It always worked. He couldn't quite figure out what was going on.

The vamp broke his little finger, and everything jumped into sharp focus. He yelled.

"Shh." The vamp tightened his grip on Xander's wrist. "If you keep screaming I'm going to have to cut your windpipe, okay?" He looked pensive. "Well, I'm going to do that anyway, so--"

Xander had a sudden, completely misplaced vision of Willow. Not the good, sweet, red-haired Willow of old, the one he kept in a little silver locket inside a dusty drawer in his brain. The one he was quickly forgetting. No, the Willow he saw was in black leather and Jezebel lipstick, and she looked pissed. She was gazing down at him from somewhere slightly above, and her expression said, I am the Madonna of self-respecting vampires everywhere. You...you are a disappointment.

Something kicked over inside him, and he thought, I am not going to die at the hands of a John Frieda clone. He had one free hand, the right one--it was bloody and it didn't work very well, but he could lift it enough to grab the vamp's ponytail and yank.

"What the--?" The vamp looked puzzled, then horrified when he saw the clump dangling from Xander's hand. Scalp, too. Just a little. Gross. "My hair--"

"How long do you think that'll take to grow back?" Xander asked, and tossed it away into the darkness.

The vamp clapped a hand to his head, as if the pain were just now transmitting, and Xander kicked him in the balls. There was no more satisfying feeling in the world, he reflected, scrambling backward over the pallets, than racking your mortal enemy. The vamp was doubled over, one hand on the back of his head, the other rammed between his knees. It was a beautiful sight.

"To the pain!" he yelled, and just caught a glimpse of the vamp giving him an irritated glare before the world fell out from under him. His right shoulder hit something hard, and then his head, and then he was shooting down something like a laundry chute or one of those old pneumatic delivery tubes, top speed and head first. This is not going to end well, he thought, just as it ended. He shot out into space, hung there for a second or two, then hit water and left a wake. It was freezing and dark, and there was no bottom. He flailed and tried to keep his mouth shut. If there were Walrussians in this, whatever it was, he was screwed. He was probably screwed anyway; he couldn't move properly, his whole right side was on fire, he couldn't see a thing. He was underfreakingwater. Somewhere, Willow was rolling her eyes and crossing his name off a list.

Then the tip of his shoe hit something hard and he jerked that way blindly. If he got out of this alive--no, wait, if he got out of this no deader than he went into it--he was going to sit right down and write up a fledgling-sire contract, and it was going to be full of riders like: No full-body immersion. No vendettas. No Walrussians. He'd have to ask around, see what else he should write in. He hadn't even heard of Walrussians yesterday.

He'd washed up against a wall, a stone wall with chinks he could cling to, so okay, he clung. He was still underwater. He should do something about that. Soon. As soon as he got a little energy, a little get-up-and-go. Maybe a Red Bull. Right now all he wanted to do was cling and do a damage assessment. Right side: serious bitching, centering around the ribs. Fingers: one very broken, very much extremely broken. Head: very confused, sleepy, painful. All systems: sort of deciding whether or not to be go. Maybe if he clung long enough, a Walrussian would swim by and eat him.

He hung a while longer in the silent black water, waiting to see if he was going to die. It was novel, hanging out underwater without needing to breathe. Then it started getting paralyzingly cold, and he remembered Spike. Who might still be alive, and in need of a bitch-slapping. That was enough reason to start hauling his worked-over butt somewhere new. Somewhere less watery.

He climbed the wall until he reached air, and found a cold metal grating a few feet directly overhead. He must be in a flooded room, he reflected, using the heel of his left hand to hammer the grate off its seat. Why it was flooded, he didn't want to know. What else might be in there with him, he didn't want to know. He just wanted to get out of the water, and to get the water out of him. His brain felt like it was floating.

The grate yielded, and he swung himself up into some kind of ventilation shaft. It smelled like dust bunnies and machine oil, but there wasn't any air movement. No light, either. For a minute or so he just drained. Then he heard a suggestion of something moving down in the water below, and that sparked a little hurry in him.

"We're gonna need a bigger boat," he muttered, and started to crawl wearily forward into darkness.





Part Seven

In movies, ventilation ducts were clean and reasonably well-lit and big enough for people to stand upright, and they led right where you wanted them to go, like to the hell out. In reality, Xander was finding, ventilation ducts were a different deal. The one he was in was silted full of crud and dust, and the only way he was getting anywhere was flat on his belly. He had a layer of fuzz on his face like he was trying out for Quest for Fire, and his whole front itched with grit. He kept having to push dead mice out of the way with his leading edge.

"This." He turned his head, paused, and sneezed violently into his shoulder. "Sucks." His nose was running, because apparently there were allergies even beyond the grave. "Spike, you bastard." Another couple of sneezes, the second one so hard he cracked his forehead involuntarily against the floor of the shaft. "Motherfucker." Bruce Willis never brained himself against the scenery. It was deeply depressing to realize that he was a shittier action hero than Bruce Willis, who had no hair. "I'm going to find you, and I'm going to rescue you, and then I'm going to kill you." Which was something else Bruce Willis never seemed to do.

The shaft led a hundred or two hundred or maybe a thousand feet straight ahead, and there were no convenient "Rescue efforts this way" signs, so he just kept crawling. His right side burned, his broken finger whimpered. He had splinters. It occurred to him to stop crawling, roll over, and nap. A quick dip into coma would do him all kinds of good, pep him right up and work that weird cold Walrussian ache out of his system, and when he woke up he could get right back on the bellycrawling through the darkness to unforeseeable peril. What was it Spike always told him? Don't be an idiot?

"This Kyd's place is great," he muttered. "I'm so glad we showed. Great idea, sire. Asshole."

He kept crawling.

The shaft went on and on in blackness, and after a while he started to lose track of where he was exactly--in a ventilation shaft in the basement of a private vampire club? That seemed unlikely. More likely was the idea that he was actually still plain old Zeppo Harris, pitched headfirst into a columbarium and currently sleeping off the brain damage. Pretty soon he was going to wake up and find Willow and Giles and Buffy staring down at him, looking apprehensive and more than a little impressed. Willow was going to bend down and apply a pint of lemon sorbet to his temple, and he was going to laugh and reach up and yank her down and punch into her throat like a Capri Sun--

Okay, maybe he wasn't still the Zeppo.

God, he was hungry.

He crawled on. The shaft started to angle up, which was a novelty. Just slightly at first, and then, after a couple of levelling-out stretches, steeply enough that he had to brace his hands and feet and start to chimney. There wasn't as much dust now, and he caught the faint sensation of air movement. It was a bit like he'd been crawling up out of the forgotten bowels of the earth, and if he got through the rest of the night without thinking about bowels again, he'd be very happy, thank you.

After a million years, a square of light appeared above him. He started moving faster. Pretty soon he realized he could hear voices. And other stuff. And he was getting a faint smell of cod again. To the best of his ability, he made himself a quiet little dust-covered chimneying vampire.

"--care how many we've bagged tonight, the rate's the same. Six kilos of market-grade herring apiece. That's the deal."

Gurgling. Somehow, it sounded pissed off.

"Well that's too bad, but I don't give a damn how many limbs you lost--"

Gargling. Definitely pissed off.

"Look, you're a mercenary, you don't get worker's comp. You don't get dental, you don't get a 401k, you get six kilos of herring and full use of the basement floodrooms. Head on down there, try the hot and cold alternating. Knock yourself out. I've got stuff to do."

Sounds like a toilet being flushed, repeatedly and emphatically. Xander was almost at the top of the shaft now--he could see through the slats of the metal grating. Half of a ceiling, a light bulb. Not much else. He wedged himself in place and kept still.

"Yeah, a purse seiner on your ass too. Tell your people to get their herring out of my loading bay before I have it trucked to the Shedd, okay? You people stink."

A door slammed, and then there was nothing but a low, constant burble. Xander gave it a few seconds, then inched up to the grate.

The room was empty except for a big grey lump sitting on a small plastic chair at a Formica table. The floor was covered in a sheen of water, and the aroma of fish jammed two clammy fingers straight up Xander's nostrils. He wiped his face and took a careful breath through his mouth.

"Six kilos doesn't seem like a lot for a...person your size."

The lump jumped six inches and swung around in the chair. There was a head, he saw now--he could make out a couple of dark, watery eyes and a surprised O of a mouth.

"I'd have gone for at least ten," Xander went on. "I mean, herring being what they are these days. And it's not like you're getting benefits--"

He never would have said a thing that looked like that--basically, like a big, dingy plastic bag full of dirty seawater--could have moved so fast. But before he could even finish what he was saying, it was up and over the table and up the wall, and the grate over the vent shaft was a thing of the past. Xander jerked back from the light and the cold, grasping arms, and skidded ten feet down the shaft into darkness.

"Hey, whoah--" He caught himself with a squeal of palmflesh on metal, and for a moment they regarded each other. The Walrussian extended a couple of arms into the shaft, patted around gently, then slowly pulled them back out. Xander adjusted his grip and swallowed.

"If you help me," he said, "I'll get you twenty kilos of herring. All of you. You can keep whatever Fawn's paying you, and I'll get you twenty on top of that."

Silence. A rivulet of cold water began to run down the side of the shaft, and Xander lifted his hand away from it. "That guy you were talking to didn't sound too great, is all I'm saying. You're working hard, all you want is an honest day's pay for an honest day's work--"

A squealing, popping sound, like the first mutterings of a kettle on the boil, and the Walrussian pushed an arm back into the shaft. Xander pulled back, but it didn't come close. It just waved in the entrance, and when he looked a little closer he noticed it looked sort of...truncated. Like something had whacked the end of it right off, and now there was just a ragged, seeping stump.

"Shit, that's gotta hurt. You got that fighting vamps?"

The stump trembled. The Walrussian looked at it, then looked at Xander. He licked his lips and said nothing.

Then suddenly the mouth of the vent was clear, nothing there but condensation. There was a watery glurble down below, in the room. Impatient-sounding. Xander squinched carefully back up to the lip of the vent and peered down. The Walrussian was down there watching him, not moving.

"Twenty kilos," Xander said again. "Deal?"

The Walrussian farted.

"Okay then," Xander said, and clambered painfully down out of the shaft.






It was amazing how far a C- in high school Spanish didn't get you when you were trying to talk to something that considered piddling on your shoe a complete sentence.

"Okay, let's try it this way," Xander said, moving his foot out of the puddle. "If Spike's still up and walking around, burble once. If he's dust, twice."

One burble. Definitely one burble. Thank God. Xander relaxed muscles he hadn't even known about.

"Great. Where is he?"

Burbling and leaking. An excited Walrussian was a real all-senses experience. Xander held up his hands in a time-out. "Slow down there, Nessie. Just...point me in the right direction."

An unhesitating tentacle to the left. Xander pointed that way too, just to confirm. One burble.

"Okay. Okay. So...we're going to head down there, and find Spike, and--"

A small geyser of fishy-smelling incomprehensibility.

"No hablo agua, sorry. But you've got my back, right?"

A pause, then one burble. Xander stood there a minute wondering what he was supposed to do. There didn't seem to be too many options.

"Okay, then." He turned and started down the hall to the left. By the sound and smell of it, the Walrussian was right behind. So far, so good.

Whoever Kyd was, he needed to hire a cleaning service. The hall was dim and quiet and dusty as hell. This couldn't be the public part of the club--it must be the back rooms, the office area. Did vampires do paperwork? Well, even if they didn't, they could still keep the place a little neater. It was like walking through the Mojave back here; there were actually drifts of dust by the baseboards. Crazy unhygienic. Or maybe, now that he thought about it, kind of...

"One thing," Xander said, slowing to a halt and staring at the floor. "Is this place always this...dusty?"

Noncommittal glurb. Xander turned and looked the Walrussian in the cavernous eyehole.

"This is vamp leftovers, isn't it?"

One burble, frank and unconcerned. Xander turned back around and started walking a little faster, with a new prickle right between his shoulder blades.

"You guys do a great job, you know? Standout."

Burble.

The hall joined with another hall, and the Walrussian pointed left again. Xander started walking. He was starting to get that tight, tense feeling in his belly again, the one that said in no uncertain terms, You know what you need to do? You need to find Spike. And make sure he's okay. How about you get on that? How about I just sit here and gnaw at your duodenum until you get on that?

He was on it. He was so totally on it, immersed in a shitty mental film loop of Spike strung up and skewered, Spike beaten bloody, Spike fighting and losing, fighting and losing--that he walked right into another vamp when they hit the next hallway.

"Hey!" That was all the other guy bothered with before lobbing a fist at Xander's head, and he was big, he was seven feet tall and four feet across, he had to swing down to go for the face, this was the kind of David-and-Goliath mismatch that made bookies toss up their hands in despair. Xander ducked, stumbled back, and yelped when his right side crunched into the far wall. The guy was coming at him, mad and punching. "You're that little shit we put in the basement, you're--"

Then a pair of watery grey tentacles, like wet bicycle inner tubes, wrapped around him from behind and separated his head from his shoulders. Poof. More dust in the hallway.

"You're that asshole who wouldn't negotiate," Xander gasped, staggering upright. The Walrussian was brushing its tentacles off fastidiously. "Contract terminated, huh?"

The Walrussian may have shrugged, or it may have been examining its stump. Xander rubbed his ribs and eyed the dust at his feet.

"Twenty kilos," he said again. The Walrussian regarded him without expression, then extended a tentacle down the hall in what must have been an after you gesture. "Uh, thanks."

He walked lively, and resisted the urge to look behind himself.

There wasn't much use in being a vampire, he thought, if you didn't even have any cool extrasensory powers like the ability to know where your sire was at all times, or flight. Magical Spike-sensing abilities would help out a lot when he got bored in night clubs, for instance, and wanted to tell Spike he was taking off. But he didn't get anything like that--all he got was the ability to take a bullet in the gut without croaking, and apparently a natural 18 in Sire Overprotectiveness. The winding-up feeling in his belly was tightening even more, he was starting to feel almost sick with worry. He rubbed his stomach with his unbroken hand and turned right at the next corridor.

"I don't know how you thought you were going to spend your evening," he said, breaking into a near-trot. "But bloodhounding out my dickhead sire in the aftermath of a vampire gangland hit was not high on my list of picks. Left here, huh?" It was definitely a left, and then there was going to be a small set of stairs, up the stairs, and God, if his belly didn't stop hurting he was going to have to stop and puke, but it was just down this hall and then up the stairs--

He stopped dead, one hand still on the ball of wire in his belly. Spike was close--just-down-the-hall-and-up-the-stairs-close--and he knew it. Somehow, he knew it. His belly was taut and quivering under his hand, and everything in him, his spine and legs and the back of his shoulders, was trying to keep going forward.

"Well, will you look at that," he said. "I have a superpower after all." He took a step forward, and his belly jumped. "I always thought it was just that he made me sick to my stomach."

No response from the Walrussian, so Xander started forward again, letting his body steer and breaking within a few steps into a staggering run. Down the hall, up the stairs, a big wooden door and holy mother of God, that was a really big gun in his face.

"You're that little shit we put in the basement," the guy with the gun said, sounding more confused than annoyed. Xander got both hands up in a who, me? gesture.

"No, that's another guy, that's ponytail guy, I'm one of you--"

The safety clicked off and Xander closed his eyes involuntarily.

"Bring him in." Woman voice. Xander opened his eyes, one at a time. The guy with the gun reached out a massive arm, a tree-sized arm, an arm that he probably used on weekends to give carnival rides to small children and their ponies, and got hold of Xander's scruff. Fawn was standing in the doorway, smiling and shining her fang rock at him.

"Hi sweetheart," she said. Xander made a small sound that may have been eep.

He was dragged inside with his shoes barely skimming the floor. The room was big. Nice-looking, if you liked opulence, wealth, and taste. Stone floors with big dark rugs, windows looking out over the lake, a fireplace big enough for goat. Furnished like a high-priced hotel suite, with luxe leather sofas and a big-screen TV, a stereo playing soft jazz, art on the walls. Fawn was walking away, her back to them, to a bar by the windows.

"You look like you've been through hell," she said over her shoulder. "Let me get you a drink, okay?"

Screw your drink! Xander's inner reactionary shouted, Che cap slightly askew. What have you done with Spike? Fawn lifted a bottle of Macallan, and he whispered, "Okay," through the giant hand crushing his windpipe.

"You can put him down," she said. "It's all right. He's harmless."

"He's supposed to be in the basement," Hulk said. "What's he doing all the way up here?"

"Looking for his sire," she said, as if it were no real achievement. Xander's inner reactionary said, Hey! And then felt very confused.

"Put him down," Fawn said, "and go back outside. I'll let you know if I need you."

Hulk hesitated, growled a little, gave Xander's neck a final parting squeeze, and set him down.

"I'm right outside," he said, and left.

"Ice?" Fawn asked.

What have you done with Spike? Xander thought fiercely. What evil, foul, painful tortures have you subjected him to? Visions of Spike impaled on some piece of genteel modern art, or singed with burning strips of 500 thread-count Egyptian sheets, started up on the mental film reel. The wired-up feeling in his gut was so strong he had to put a hand over it to make sure it wasn't vibrating. The other hand was on his throat, which was still dented.

"I'll give you some," Fawn said. "Just one cube; you can always add another." She came back with a squat amber tumbler in her hand, and held it out to him. "It's the eighteen year-old. This is the high-roller suite. They stock the good stuff."

Xander stared at the glass, then at her. She regarded him steadily until he reached out a hand and took the whiskey from her.

"I guess you want to see Spike," she said.

"Where's Spike?" he demanded, and then stopped short. "I mean, yeah. What did you do to him, you bit--"

"Oy," Spike said from the couch. "Mind the language, Harris."

Xander spun around and stood gaping, while the zing went out of his belly and up through his spine and heart and head and left his whole body tingling. He could see the tip of a Doc Marten poking over the arm of the long leather couch.

"Spike--" In a second he'd dropped the glass and was across the room, it felt like two big steps and it made his right side gasp with pain, but fuck it, that was Spike's boot, that was Spike stretched out on the couch with his own glass balanced on his bare belly, no shirt on, looking up at Xander with heavy-lidded eyes. They'd stripped him, they must have whipped him or something, maybe he was drugged, his eyes looked all wrong, kind of dopey and placid--

"I'm going to get you out of here," Xander said, leaning forward to grab at Spike's hand. "Don't worry, we're getting out, it's gonna be okay--"

Bizarrely, Spike was slapping at his hand and looking annoyed. "What the hell are you--"

He must be disoriented from the drugs. Xander grabbed Spike's wrist and hauled, ignoring the pain in his own ribs. "It's okay, come on--"

Then there was a debilitating pain in his right shoulder, the right side of his neck, and he crumpled to his knees. Fawn must have snuck up on him, Jesus Christ, it felt like a cattle prod, why hadn't he heard her?

"Don't grab," Spike said, a little pissily, and let go. The pain let off and he stepped back, and Xander just stayed down. Hands and knees was a good place to be right now, while the world turned upside down and took him with it.

"Spike," Fawn said, from where she was still standing. "Come on, he made it all the way here just to find you."

"He should ask before he touches." Then Spike was crouching next to Xander, a hand on Xander's shoulder. "Look, just take a few deep breaths, okay? Just a nerve, you're all right."

"You've been drugged," Xander gasped, massaging his collarbone.

"Just a little pot," Spike said. "Nothing serious. Frankly, you seem like you could use some yourself. Fawn love, want to see if there's any left to that last one?"

"You've been tortured," Xander muttered, staring at the floor while the pain in his shoulder faded away. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"Trust me," Spike said, "I'm fine. You look a little rough around the edges, though. Where've you been?"

"Basement cell," Fawn supplied, sitting down on the arm of the couch and holding a lit joint down in front of Xander's face. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do with him at first, so I just put him there for holding. Drag and hold."

"Your yobs beat him up?" Spike sounded intrigued, which seemed at the very least ungrateful. Xander stared at the ember of the lit joint and shook his head.

"Never got a chance," Fawn said, taking the joint away and dragging on it herself. "He got out."

"Got out," Spike said tonelessly, like he didn't quite understand what those words meant in that combination. "What'd you do, tag along with someone?"

"Fuck you," Xander said, staring at the floor.

"On your own, then." Spike's hand ran up Xander's shoulder and ruffled his hair. "Good for you. Really put yourself through the shredder, didn't you?"

"I sent a couple guards down to release him over two hours ago," Fawn said, her voice squinchy with pot smoke. "He was already gone. Dane Duke was pissed off, something about his hair."

"Dane Duke's an asshole," Spike said shortly. "Hope you stake him. Come on, you smell like a cannery." That was to Xander; he was pulling on Xander's arm, trying to get him to stand up.

"Fawn's taking over the city," Xander gasped. "She's been killing all the vamps in town, she hired the Walrussians to do it and she's taking over the territory. Chicago's going to be, like, Fawnago." He winced. Spike was regarding him stonily. "Okay, that was bad, but it wasn't mine originally."

"News for you," Spike said, still pulling Xander's arm and getting him halfway up at least. "I know all that."

Xander let himself be pulled all the way up, forgetting his right side and then flinching back down into a half-crouch when it flared up. He was having problems computing. It sounded like Spike had said he already--

"You've been busy crawling through sewers, smells like," Spike said, starting to walk him over toward the bar. "Me, I've been up here talking to the brains of the operation."

"Without your shirt," Xander said irrelevantly. Or maybe not irrelevantly. For a second, Spike's hand locked tight on his bicep. He still smiled, though.

"What you need," he said, "is a drink, a bath, and a smack in the head." Xander reacted just a second too late, and caught the smack right in the middle of the skull, hard enough to make his teeth clack. "Now, Fawn was lady enough to make you a drink, and you dropped it on the floor. You can clean it up later, when you're feeling better. You can apologize now."

There was something new in his voice, something that hadn't ever been there before. He didn't quite sound like Spike. He sounded like-- Xander didn't know, but it was weirdly, scarily familiar.

He sounded, for one thing, like he was dead serious.

Xander paused a moment longer, his eyes sprinting over Spike's whole body. No whip marks, no bruises. No signs of frontal lobotomy. Nothing in his face except hard, focused attention, like he was on pause while he waited for Xander to do what he'd been told. Like he was brainwashed. Or like there was something going on that Xander didn't understand.

"I'm sorry," Xander said, turning back and looking over his shoulder at Fawn, who was butting the joint on the floor beside the couch. "I'll clean it up."

She shrugged and picked a piece of pot off her tongue. "No problem, Xander. I'm fine with it."

"He's a bit of a berk," Spike said apologetically, taking a towel off the bar and dunking it in the ice bucket. "Take that, get yourself cleaned up."

"Let him take a bath," Fawn said. "He earned one, making it all the way up here on his own."

"Take two," Spike said, pulling a glass out and measuring ice into it. "Bathroom's that way."

Xander stood stock-still, holding the clean bar towel in one hand.

"He's so cute," Fawn said. "It's like that dog on the records, you know? The one with its head all--"

"His master's voice," Spike said, sounding bored. Xander narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to say, Listen, you wax cylinder asshole, you're either walking out of here with me right now, or-- But Spike's eyes were already on his face, watching him with a kind of hard, eager attention, like he was just waiting for a comment like that so he could--what? Xander swallowed and closed his mouth.

"Take a bath," Spike said again, uncapping a bottle.

"A long one," Fawn purred, rolling backward onto the couch and cradling the half-empty glass Spike had left on the coffee table. "Your sire and I need a little time to ourselves."





Part Eight



He'd never actually seen a marble bathtub before. Marble bathtubs were for rich people, people with tony penthouse suites, possibly Mafia. So it was appropriate, he reflected, staring at the golden fixtures, that he was seeing one now. Because apparently Spike had been co-opted by the vampire Mafia. So far, Chicago was really sucking.

There was an array of fruity-looking bath potions on the ledge by the tub, some brand that didn't sell to the middle classes, one Buffy used to aspire to. He scowled, sat down on the toilet seat, and started the hot water. Fine. He was in Bizarroland anyway, he'd take a bath. What the hell. But he wasn't using the fruity stuff.

"Use the stuff!" Spike yelled from the other room.

Xander went briefly, uncontrollably, to game face.

"I heard that!" Spike yelled.

In petty rebellion, Xander emptied an entire bottle of eau d'emasculation into the water and kicked the bathroom door closed.

After the close dance with the Walrussians, the basement cell brawl, the swim in the floodrooms, the crawl through the shaft, the dusty hallways, and the final headlong sprint up the stairs, he needed a bath. He hadn't been planning to take one under quite these circumstances, but he could admit that he needed one. He could even admit that hot water and soap sounded okay. He was freezing and pretty much all his parts hurt. Plus, he had dust in every gasket. Struggling to get his shirt off, he heard his shoulders creak in protest. His right side was a triple-salami pizza of contusions from hip to shoulder. And his little finger still stuck out due east, like it was trying to hitch a ride away from the rest of his body. He couldn't really blame it.

Naked, he stood next to the tub and pondered his fate. Right about now he'd expected to be red in tooth and claw, hand-to-handing it with Fawn's crew of bruisers, or possibly dragging Spike's inert body feet-first through some hidden access tunnel. Doing rescue-guy things. He put his hands in the small of his back and looked around, grimacing. There were individual hand towels folded up beside the sink. With little goats on them.

The bath water was somewhere between hot and scalding, and as soon as he sank down into it he was half-buried in a drift of foam. It smelled like flowers. He was going to be a flowery little fledgling. Wonderful. Maybe later they'd all sit down and have hot cocoa and play Apples to Apples. And then, the electroshock therapy.

He slid down the marble until his ears were underwater, toed the faucet half-off, and closed his eyes. He was done trying to figure any of it out. Good night, and somebody could wake him when the clock ticked over to sane again.

He drifted for a while, then came back to realize that he could hear something under the running water. Something in the other room--it sounded like fighting, like yelling and thumping and holy shit, Spike was in trouble--

He jerked upright and was halfway out of tub when his ears cleared and he realized that it wasn't a fight. Fighting didn't entail that particular rhythm, or those kinds of groans and affirmatives, or the phrase "Give it to me." People who were getting beat up didn't ask to be beat up harder.

He stood with one leg still in the tub, dripping all over the plush, curly bathmat, transfixed. Inside his brain, Leftover Zeppo Xander peered out of his sofa-cushion fort and gave a long, low, commiserating whistle. Sucks to be you today, doesn't it?

"She has a fucking rhinestone in her tooth," Xander whispered miserably. "That is so fucking tacky." Leftover Zeppo nodded.

Xander stood listening a couple seconds longer, then shrank back into the tub and dunked himself completely under. Sound was muted under there, and if he closed his eyes and plugged his ears he could pretend he was somewhere else completely. Like wherever the rest of the world went when they died.







By the time Spike appeared, Xander was back to the surface, pruned up and sulky. He'd refilled the bath twice, and used another bottle of stank. He was lying on his back under a mountain of froth, his arms crossed over his chest, watching his toes play with the hot water tap. He didn't look up when Spike came in.

"You about done?" Spike smelled like sex and booze and cigarettes, all of which were supposed to be good smells, and all of which made Xander feel like puking into his own lap. He shrugged, then jerked his legs away when Spike reached down into the tub between his feet and pulled the plug. "You smell like Vera Lynn."

Xander sank down into his protective wall of foam and gave Spike a death glare. He was still shirtless, the bastard, and he hadn't even bothered to button his jeans all the way. There was a hickey on his throat. Xander's eyes caught on it and he felt a fresh stab of anger.

"Come on," Spike said, dropping the plug and shaking bubbles off his fingers. "Out you get."

"Why?" He sounded like a teenager, he could hear it in his voice, and he hated it because it wasn't cool, it wasn't casual, it wasn't Hey, sure, why don't I take the next suite over, you guys seem like you've got this thing going on. It was more along the lines of Diediediediediediedie. Somehow he'd thought that being a vampire would make him suave and impervious. But no.

"Because I told you to," Spike said. "And because you're being rude."

"Rude?" Xander pulled the plunger all the way back and shot every cc of venom he had into the word. "I'm being rude?"

"Or deaf," Spike said amiably. "Your call."

Xander let his face ripple a little, just enough to make a point, although he wasn't really sure what the point was. "You just banged Christina Aguilera halfway through the supporting wall, and I'm being--"

That was as far as he got before he had to come to terms with the more pressing problem of Spike's hand crushing his windpipe. Bruised!his brain cried out silently, while his fingers plucked feebly at Spike's. Already bruised! Leggo!

"You need to keep a civil tongue in your head," Spike said quietly. Xander rolled his eyes up and caught a glimpse of Spike's expression. Fixed, alert, very blue. Not a standard, run-of-the-mill, you-stupid-twat Spike look. More of a look-at-me-looking-at-you-you-stupid-twat look. With bite.

Xander stopped struggling, let the bath water swish softly back to level, and just lay there. Spike kept a hand around his throat, but didn't look away. For a few long seconds, they stared at each other.

Xander's brain clicked off the remote, folded the newspaper, sighed, trudged up the stairs, swung the cellar door open, and propped its elbows on the kitchen floor. There's something going on here, it said, helpful and also a little bored. Something we don't understand. Maybe we should play along.

Infinitessimally, Xander nodded.

Spike held him down a second longer, his eyes still locked on Xander's face. Then he let go and stood up, shaking more bubbles off his hand.

"Right then. Get yourself dried off and we'll see if there's anything you can put on."

He dropped a bath towel onto the toilet seat and was gone before Xander had a chance to say, Sir yes sir. Or to hope that whatever he was going to put on wasn't going to come with a frilly little cap and a feather duster. His day had really already sucked enough.







No ruffles, no calico prints. But not much else, either.

"I'll see if the guys have any spare stuff around," Fawn said, stretching her silken arms up to grab hold of the headboard. "You're okay in a towel though, right?"

Okay?, Xander's brain replied. I'm more than okay, I'm fucking great. I fucking love towels. Terry is all I'm going to wear from now on. Let me just go back in and get a washcloth to wear on my head. He opened his mouth, caught Spike's look, and said, "Sure."

"Cool." Fawn gave a long, feline groan and rolled from side to side, making the headboard creak. "Oh my God, I needed that." Xander stared blankly at the rumpled sheets, at the clothes scattered over the floor, at the panties and bra that Anya used to have too. "Your sire's an amazing lay, you know that?"

"I, uh--" Speech had deserted him. Speech was such a freaking coward. Xander wrenched his gaze up from the tangle of lace and silk and saw that she was smirking at him. "Okay." Somehow, My ex used to have those panties didn't seem like the best option at the moment.

"Better than okay," she said, rolling away and sharing a smooth pale ass cheek with the world. "Way better than okay."

"Make yourself useful, why don't you?" Spike said from the other side of the room, and Fawn smiled invitingly back over her shoulder, and Xander's brain reeled at the sudden implication that he was going to have to, oh God, no, hang on a second, he really wasn't in the mood, he was never going to be in the mood again--

Something damp and clammy hit him in the back of the head and he flinched, thinking, Walruss-- It hit the ground by his foot and he jerked his toes away. Just a wet bar towel.

"Clean up that mess," Spike said, walking past with a glass of whiskey in each hand and settling onto the foot of the bed. "That drink you dropped."

Xander stood for a minute, gears grinding, trying not to see the way Spike was leaning over, passing one of the whiskeys to Fawn, slouching back against the footboard. The way his right foot was searching out hers and tickling it. The look on his face--negligent, satisfied, comfortable. The look of a guy who was pretty happy with his lot in life, because his lot in life was pretty much just banging horny women and drinking their liquor.

And when you looked at it that way, you could kind of see why he looked comfortable.

"He doesn't always do what you tell him to do," Fawn observed, still facing away, sounding amused.

"He's new, love. Still learning."

"Did you see his finger?"

Spike squinted at Xander as if seeing him for the first time. "What'd you do to your finger?"

Xander looked down; his pinky was a blueish sausage. On a scale of one to ten, it hurt at about a four. And dropping. "Nothing." He folded the bar towel over it and geisha-d over to the glass he'd broken. "So, uh, can I have a drink too?"

"Sure," Fawn said, rolling onto her back and piling pillows behind her head. "There's some dope on the mantel if you want some."

Take it, Xander's brain advised him.

"Um, thanks."

"He's so cute," she said, turning back to Spike. "I love it when they're new like this. All big eyes and constant hard-ons."

Xander almost dropped his glass again. He didn't have a hard-on, he was relieved to confirm. She must be talking about some other new vamps, maybe some fledge she had, maybe--

"Where's Willard?" he asked, scanning the mantel. Ah, yes. Fat plastic baggie, great, whatever, sign him up.

"Willard..." Fawn laughed and sipped her drink, and didn't say anything else. Spike just sat there like a romance novel hero, all shirtless and bedheady, tickling her toes. Unbelieveable. Also, gross.

"Okay," Xander muttered, sloshing whiskey into his glass. "Willard, I hardly knew you."

"Willard didn't listen," Spike said flatly. "Willard didn't do what he was told."

"And now Willard's history."

"Smart boy," Fawn purred.

"You should see me scale a ventilation shaft."

"The thing is," Spike said, leaning over and oh God, nuzzling Fawn's disgusting perfect toes, "I've been letting things slide with you since the beginning. No discipline, no training."

"You shot me in the gut," Xander said helpfully.

"Things are going to be a little different, starting now."

"Okay, but if you want to do this in Spanish, I'm going to need a vocabulary list."

"I want you," Spike said, and paused. For a few seconds he lay slumped against the footboard, studying Xander with a look of faint frustration. Then he heaved himself up to sitting and held his drink out toward Fawn. "Hell with it. Hold this a minute, will you love?"

She gave him a look of interest over her shoulder, but didn't take the drink. After a second he smiled--maybe a little tightly--and set it down on the floor. Then he got up and started walking across the room toward Xander. Who was getting a bad feeling, which worsened the closer Spike got.

"Hang on a second, I don't think I really got what you were saying, there--"

"I was saying," Spike said, cracking his knuckles against his palms, "that we need to get a few things straight around here."

"Straight, yeah. Sure, no problem." Xander was backing up, holding his whiskey against his chest like a shield, thinking bizarre, stupid thoughts like You can make it to the door if you go now-- Leftover thoughts from eighteen years of living under his father's roof, which if nothing else had given him a keen ability to judge trajectories. "Listen, sorry, I'm a little tired, I'm still getting myself together here--"

And again, he didn't get to finish his thought, unless the rest of his thought had been urk. Spike was suddenly right there, right in his face, and there was a Spike hand around his throat and another one taking the glass out of his hands.

"Since you just cleaned up," Spike said, in a considerate tone, putting the glass down on the mantel. Then he punched Xander in the face.

It hurt. Getting punched always hurt, but lately his pain threshold had risen, and while getting whaled on by Hell's Angels wasn't exactly fun, it didn't make him feel like his head was coming off at the neck anymore, either. Getting hit by ponytail vamp had sucked, but that had at least been kind of a scrimmage. Getting shot had hurtÖokay, more. Getting punched, even by Spike, didn't hurt as much as getting shot.

That wasn't saying much.

Xander got one hand up to try to block, but he couldn't see properly, his head was ringing and his nose felt broken, and before he knew it, another brick wall had crashed into his face. He was bleeding. Profusely, enthusiastically. He tried to swing with his right, caught a lot of space, and then Spike was shoving him back, right off his feet, and the back of his head cracked the wall.

"Goddammit--" He kicked, swung out like an idiot, and Spike punched him in the gut. Hard. That was it, that was the end. It didn't matter that he didn't breathe or eat or pee much anymore--it was still like a lead ball dropping on him from a height, and all he could do was curl in on himself and gasp and try not to die. His whole body was trying to crawl out of this. Spike dropped him. He landed on his hands and knees, on the floor, blood tapping the wood in a steady rhythm under his face. He was going to throw up. He heaved twice, experimentally. Nothing but spit.

He felt something touch his ribs, and flinched automatically. Fuck, Spike-- His diaphragm was locked in place, his airway was sealed, there was no way he was talking. What the fuck are you doing?

It was Spike's toe, prodding him. Then Spike's hand, running over the back of his head and gripping his hair. Pulling, so he had no choice but to lift his head. Spike's face was very white and very still.

"That's the only warning you're going to get," he said.

Xander tried to get his breath to say something, tried to snort some of the blood off his lip, tried to do anything that would make him less of a pathetic footstool of a man. He couldn't. He still couldn't quite get his head around the fact that Spike had just hit him.

"Understand?" Spike said. For just a second, his eyes flicked to the far side of the room. To the bed, where Fawn was sitting up in the sheets, watching closely.

Xander swallowed. His throat was still locked, so speaking was out. He nodded instead.

"Good," Spike said. He dropped Xander's head, stood up, and wiped his hand on his jeans as if he didn't like what he'd been touching. "Right, princess--what's on the menu for this evening's entertainment?"




tbc?




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